Does Shell Think We’ve Forgotten 2012?

A war is heating up in the Pacific Northwest as Shell prepares to dock its Arctic drilling fleet in the Port of Seattle. Shell claims this project is safe, environmentally sound, and economically beneficial. Do they think our memory spans are so short that we can’t remember three years ago?

You may have heard about it by now: earlier this year, the Port of Seattle – a private entity run separately from the city itself – had made a deal with a company called Foss Maritime, of whom Shell Oil is a client, allowing them to bring Shell’s two massive Arctic drilling rigs into the Port for maintenance before heading out to the Chuchki Sea, north of Alaska, for an exploratory drilling project.

Obviously, given Seattle’s history of being a hotbed of progressive activism, a lot of people are less than pleased with this idea.

Groups like 350, Rising Tide, Bayan-USA Pacific Northwest – a coalition of progressive Filipino groups – and Other 98% have joined forces to stand up to Shell’s dangerous Arctic drilling plans. “Kayak-tivists” are planning several water- and land-based actions against the oil giant, and their efforts are already getting front-page news. This week, they gained a powerful ally: the Mayor of Seattle announced that his office believes that the Port doesn’t have the necessary permits to allow Shell to dock there.

Naturally, Foss Maritime has delivered the usual talking points about why this project isn’t a terrible, horrible, no good very bad idea. Foss spokesman Paul Queary called the plan a “win-win,” arguing that “it’s a good deal for Foss and it’s a good deal for the port and for the taxpayers that support the port.” There have been some vague statements about job creation and supporting the port economy.

Strangely, Shell itself has been relatively quiet as this brouhaha unfolds, seeming to prefer letting Foss do the talking for both of them. But their silence on the potential fallout from Arctic drilling isn’t just in the media: their own plans for this project make almost no mention of how they’re preparing to handle potential spills. And that should make us all very, very concerned.

As this blog post from Greenpeace points out, Shell’s planned routes in and out of the drilling site will take its rigs perilously close to Wrangel Island, “one of the most protected wilderness regions in the world, is home to the largest population of Pacific walruses and is the world’s largest denning ground for polar bears.” But the drilling plans that Shell submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (which can be found here) don’t take that danger into account:

The Worst Case Discharge oil spill model found in Shell’s Chukchi Sea oil spill response plan shows oil heading west toward Wrangel Island. Under this scenario, oil could enter the Wrangel Island buffer zone within 30 days. Despite modeling the trajectory of a spill, the company’s response plan does not include any specific tactics or information to protect Wrangel Island.

Perhaps worse, Shell’s plans also only make passing mention of how they would coordinate international cooperation in the event of a spill. In fact, the entire section of the plan that deals with spills takes up just 3 and a half of the report’s 139 pages.

Here’s why this matters: Shell has a disastrous safety record when it comes to Arctic drilling.

Shell’s plans include the phrase “Despite the very low likelihood of a large oil spill event.” That’s pretty bold! Especially considering the fact that the last time Shell tried to drill in the Arctic, it ended in crushed safety gear, a rig run aground, and 8 felony convictions.

Yep! In late December of 2012, Shell set out for the Alaskan coast on an exploratory mission. If that timing sounds weird to you (a mid-winter trip to the Arctic?), you’ve got great instincts: they deliberately set out at a dangerous time of year in order to avoid paying their taxes.

See, taxes would have been assessed on January 1, 2013 if the vessel was still in Alaskan waters; by towing their drilling rig, the Kulluk, into international waters before that date, Shell avoided paying millions of dollars to the state.

Their greed had a disastrous result, as National Geographic reported:

What ensued was a four-day odyssey, in which the Kulluk broke free of its tow ship in rough seas and drifted out of control close to the Kodiak archipelago, with 150,000 gallons (568,000 liters) of diesel fuel and lubricants onboard. Amid winds as high as 45 knots—more than 50 miles per hour—and seas as high as 18 feet (5.5 meters), the Kulluk’s 18-member crew had to be rescued by Coast Guard helicopter. Eventually, the unmanned vessel came to rest just east of Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited but ecologically and culturally rich site north of Ocean Bay. The Kulluk was eventually towed to Asia, and is currently out of commission.

A report issued by the Coast Guard placed the blame squarely on Shell’s risky behavior. Blame was also assigned to Noble Drilling, the contractor Shell hired to operate the two drilling rigs, the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk. Ultimately, Noble Drilling pled guilty to 8 felony counts, admitting to things like willfully failing to notify the U.S. Coast Guard of hazardous conditions aboard the Noble Discoverer, falsifying data about the collection, storage and disposal of oil in their record-keeping, and negligently discharging dirty bilge water into Broad Bay, Unalaska (gross).

But wait! There’s more!

Unbelievably, that wasn’t the only disaster that Shell created in 2012. That same year, Shell conducted safety testing of their spill equipment in the calm waters of the Puget Sound, off the northwestern coast of Washington state. They were attempting to prove to federal officials that they had the capcity to clean up a massive underwater oil spill in order to be allowed to drill for oil in the Arctic. That proof was a barge called the Arctic Challenger. So how’d the Challenger hold up? Well, according to internal documents retreived by Seattle news outlet KUOW, pretty f-ing badly:

  • Day 1: The Arctic Challenger’s massive steel dome comes unhooked from some of the winches used to maneuver it underwater. The crew has to recover it and repair it.
  • Day 2: A remote-controlled submarine gets tangled in some anchor lines. It takes divers about 24 hours to rescue the submarine.
  • Day 5: The test has its worst accident. On that dead-calm Friday night, Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, is on board the Challenger. He’s watching the underwater video feed from the remote-control submarine when, a little after midnight, the video screen suddenly fills with bubbles. The 20-foot-tall containment dome then shoots to the surface. The massive white dome “breached like a whale,” Fesmire e-mails a colleague at BSEE headquarters.

Then the dome sinks more than 120 feet. A safety buoy, basically a giant balloon, catches it before it hits bottom. About 12 hours later, the crew of the Challenger manages to get the dome back to the surface. “As bad as I thought,” Fesmire writes his BSEE colleague. “Basically the top half is crushed like a beer can.”

Is it just us, or do the phrases “oil spill safety gear” and “crushed like a beer can” really not go together?

Anyway, Shell’s plans were delayed another year because of the failure, but they soldiered on, and now here we are again.

We cannot and will not allow Shell to take this risk.

This isn’t just about Wrangel Island and polar bears. This is about real people – people who are already being adversely affected by climate change – who are being threatened by Shell’s reckless greed. This is about the Duwamish Tribe, Seattle’s first people, who have already had their federal recognition stripped from them because there weren’t enough tribe members left. This is about fishermen and seafood processors and restauranteurs, who depend on a healthy marine ecosystem to feed their families.

When BP spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the entire Gulf Coast economy suffered. It still hasn’t returned to normal.

Written by Caitlyn McClure

Caitlyn is a rabble-rouser and writer based in Olympia, WA. She is a copywriter and logistics specialist for Tiny Pixel Collective, a web shop providing activists and artists with the tools they need to tell stories that inspire change.