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Shell drilling in the Arctic vs. Environmental groups

Some places in the world are too special to drill, is the Arctic one of them? A dozen of environmental groups are trying to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic.

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80 miles away from Alaska’s north-west shore lies a plateau on the Arctic Ocean floor where every summer thousands of walruses dive for food to feed their pups. It’s also popular with bearded seals. It is so valuable to these animals some have been tracked making a 300 mile round trip just to bring up their families. It has been described as an incredibly rich biological habitat and according to Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, “there are some places too special to drill.”

You can imagine how that went down with Alaskan leaders eager to open the seabed for the wealth that could flow. One US Senator, Lisa Murkowski, was quoted as saying, “The Obama administration wants to preserve Alaska like a nice little snow globe”.

However that’s not exactly true and it seems you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. President Obama is currently taking a lot of heat after his administration approved Royal Dutch Shell’s bid to drill for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska, upholding a lease sale made in 2008. It comes three years after the oil giant experienced a number of potentially catastrophic errors and suspended operations.

Explaining why, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it had, “taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives.” BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper added, “As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards.”

Shell will conduct its operations using the drillship M/V Noble Discoverer and the semi-submersible drilling unit Transocean Polar Pioneer, with each vessel providing relief-well capability for the other. The two drilling units and their supporting vessels will depart the Chukchi Sea at the conclusion of each exploration drilling season.

That is all conditional however depending on the outcome of an intended court case which will be brought by around a dozen environmental groups. This week they told a US Federal Court they will renew a challenge to the 2008 leasing following admission in March from the Department of the Interior that it had corrected mistakes made during environmental analysis that led to the sea sale taking place. That sale netted almost $3bn for the federal government and since then Shell has spent almost $10bn more in preparation for the start of the drilling operation.

But campaigners say they are concerned about the impact that would have on the Hanna Shoal walrus population. Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist at Greenpeace, said. “Shell has a history of dangerous malfunctioning in the Arctic while global scientists agree that Arctic oil must stay in the ground if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

BOEM admittedly said that “there is a 75% chance of one or more large spills” happening. In 2012 when a critical part of a system to deal with oil spills failed, Shell was forced to shut down operations. To further compound the problem as the Kulluk rig was dragged back to port, it ran aground and as a result of a very critical report from the US coast guard $12m in fines was handed out. When the oil giant was given permission to start up again, 1000 miles from the nearest coast guard station, it led to fears a disaster in these icy, dangerous waters could be larger even than that in the Gulf of Mexico that spilled nearly 5m barrels into the water and killed 11 people.

But Shell will not give up without a fight. It says, “We owe it to the Arctic, its inhabitants, and the world to work with great care as we search for oil and gas resources and develop those at the request of governments across the region. In doing so, we aim to safely unlock energy vital to help meet growing demand in Arctic countries, and across the world.”