BPing the Arctic: How Shell's Dangerous Drilling Is Being Fast Tracked
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One of the riskiest and most destructive extreme energy oil exploration projects on the planet is moving toward implementation without scientific understanding or technical preparedness — Shell’s oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean of Alaska.
On August 4, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) conditionally approved Shell’s plan to drill up to four exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea of Arctic Alaska starting July 2012. A Los Angeles Times editorial correctly opined, “Shell Oil’s conditional permit to drill exploratory wells off Alaska should not have been granted. The hazards of drilling in such waters are in some ways worse than operating thousands of feet underwater. ... It’s too early for any approval, conditional or otherwise.” Shell still needs several more permits including an air quality permit from the Environmental Protection Agency before they can do any drilling in the Arctic seabed. We must stop it.
Soon I’ll tell you how BOEMRE is ignoring science to fast track Shell’s dangerous drilling plan, but first here is a brief history of how we got here.
During the Bush administration Shell bought leases in both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas — Lease Sales 195 and 202 in the Beaufort Sea in 2005 and 2007 respectively; and Lease Sale 193 in the Chukchi Sea in 2008. Then, in 2009 the Mineral Management Service (MMS), which is now BOEMRE, approved Shell’s plan to drill five exploratory wells — two in the Beaufort Sea and three in the Chukchi Sea. Following year on March 31 President Obama announced his new energy proposal that included opening up vast areas of America’s coastlines, including Beaufort and Chukchi Seas to oil and gas development. Three weeks later BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil and an enormous amount of methane.
On May 25, 2010 I wrote an essay titled, “BPing the Arctic? Will the Obama Administration Allow Shell Oil to Do to Arctic Waters What BP Did to the Gulf?” that was distributed widely and was translated in French and German. Two days later President Obama suspended Shell’s 2010 drilling plan. The great irony was that it was BP’s catastrophe that saved the Arctic Ocean, that time. Unsurprisingly Shell went on offensive by launching massive ad campaign and kept on pressuring the administration. On August 26 I founded ClimateStoryTellers.org. We presented stories after stories through the end of the year on Shell’s Arctic drilling and their ad campaign. You can read all those stories here.
In response to a lawsuit brought by Inupiat and environmental organizations, on December 30 the Environmental Appeals Board of the EPA revoked Shell’s major source air quality permit. Subsequently Shell abandoned their 2011 drilling plan.
United States Is Becoming The Town of Punxsutawney
On May 4, 2011 Shell submitted their revised Beaufort Sea Exploration Plan (EP) with BOEMRE — two exploratory wells in 2012 and two in 2013. Then on May 12 they submitted their Chukchi Sea plan — three exploratory wells in 2012 and three in 2013. They’ve upped the ante; instead of the five wells that they had asked for in the past, now they’re asking for ten. On July 5 BOEMRE deemed Shell’s Beaufort application submitted and on August 4 conditionally approved it.
The BOEMRE press release about the permit begins with the announcement that Shell’s Beaufort exploratory wells would be in “shallow water.” This is a key argument you’ll hear from Shell and BOEMRE and it goes like this: BP’s Deepwater Horizon was operating at a depth of 5,000 feet while Shell’s Arctic wells would operate in shallow water with depth of about 120 feet. The pressure is lower at shallower depth, sure, but don’t buy this argument. I’ll explain below and as Los Angeles Times correctly opined: drilling in the harsh ice covered environment of the Arctic Ocean is worse than drilling in the subtropical Gulf of Mexico.
BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich wrote in the press release, “We base our decisions regarding energy exploration and development in the Arctic on the best scientific information available.”
Here is how I’d reinterpret Bromwich’s comment: “We know that we have too many gaps in our scientific understanding of the Arctic Ocean. If Shell kills the ocean out there, we can always say our knowledge was limited — honestly, we didn’t know. But if we do an appropriate and thorough scientific study of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas we might find out that Shell shouldn’t really go there to drill. So we based our permit on best scientific information available .”
The press release also states, “BOEMRE found no evidence that the proposed action would significantly affect the quality of the human environment. Therefore, BOEMRE determined that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was not required, and issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a key step in the approval of the EP.”
What BOEMRE has done instead is an Environmental Assessment (EA).
I spoke with Erik Grafe, an attorney with the Earthjustice office in Anchorage to understand the EA vs. EIS process. “EA is a small internal report that a federal agency produces, whereas, an EIS is a thorough process: an extensive draft report is produced and public are invited to comment on it. This process also offers alternatives — if the proposed action is deemed environmentally destructive then other options are explored. Through full public participation and a rigorous process a final EIS is produced,” Erik told me.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) states, “an Environmental Impact Statement must be prepared if substantial questions are raised as to whether a project ... may cause significant degradation of some human environmental factor.”
On July 15, 2011 fourteen environmental organizations and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) sent a letter to James Kendall, Regional Director of BOEMRE, Alaska. The letter demands that BOEMRE “must prepare a full EIS to analyze and disclose the effects of the proposed drilling.” To substantiate their demand the letter states, “The proposed activity threatens a number of significant effects, including effects to endangered Bowhead whales from drilling and ice–breaking noise, effects from a very large oil spill, and cumulative effects, and has the potential to harm subsistence activities that are of central cultural significance to Arctic coastal communities. NEPA requires these effects to be analyzed in an EIS.”
The letter also points out, “The recommendations of National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill also strongly support preparation of an EIS for Shell’s exploration plan.”
BOEMRE rubber–stamped Shell’s plan a fortnight later, without doing an EIS.
Earlier in 2009 when MMS granted Shell five exploratory drilling permits in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas the agency concluded that a large spill was “too remote and speculative an occurrence” to warrant analysis, even though it acknowledged that such a spill could have devastating consequences in the Arctic Ocean’s icy waters and could be difficult to clean up.
On Saturday August 13, as I was wrapping up this piece, in an article titled “Shell Tries to Control North Sea Oil Leak” The New York Times reported, “Oil is seeping into the North Sea after a platform flow line in the seabed sprung a leak, dumping several hundred barrels of oil into the water.” Note that this is mid summer when the weather is relatively mild out there. Also, the North Sea is part of the Atlantic Ocean where conditions are nothing like the harsh environment of the Arctic Ocean of Alaska. About the spill Shell said, “Our current expectation is it will be naturally dispersed through wave action and will not reach shore.” Later in this piece I talk about Shell’s ‘leave in place’ plan in the Beaufort Sea.
Last year Rolling Stone reported on what BP had put in their exploration plan application for Deepwater Horizon that MMS had rubber–stamped, “BP claims that a spill is ‘unlikely’ and states that it anticipates ‘no adverse impacts’ to endangered wildlife or fisheries. Should a spill occur, it says, ‘no significant adverse impacts are expected’ for the region’s beaches, wetlands and coastal nesting birds.”
The government and corporations are making US the town of Punxsutawney where in each new drilling cycle we would awake to the same set of cruel lies that lead to the destruction of our environment.
BOEMRE Asks “Which Do You Want — Oil or Science?”
In March 2010 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had asked the US Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct a special review of information to better understand the marine environment of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and specifically asked to examine the “effects of exploration activities on marine mammals; determine what research is needed for an effective and reliable oil spill response in ice–covered regions; evaluate what is known about the cumulative effects of energy extraction on ecosystems; and review how future changes in climate conditions may either mitigate or compound the impacts from Arctic energy development.” After a thorough yearlong process in late June 2011 USGS released a comprehensive assessment.
I learned from an August 4 joint press release by twelve environmental organizations and REDOIL that the USGS report reinforces the fact: “we need a basic understanding of the Arctic Ocean ecosystem before we can drill there.”
Leah Donahey, Western Arctic and Oceans Program Director at the Alaska Wilderness League told me, “With hundreds of pieces of key information missing, inadequate synthesis of existing scientific data and a need to gather additional types of information such as traditional knowledge from Alaska Natives, the USGS report argues that now is the time to be conducting rigorous scientific analysis on the impacts of drilling in the Arctic Ocean.”
BOEMRE is ignoring the basic fact that scientific knowledge is necessary before any drilling is approved, while the USGS report states that without detailed scientific knowledge “it is difficult, if not impossible” to make informed decisions about oil and gas development in America’s Arctic Ocean.
This is what I’d call fast tracking — MMS did that for BP and now BOEMRE is doing it for Shell.
Silence Those Arctic Scientists, Please
During George W. Bush’s presidency Arctic science was suppressed and manipulated to promote Arctic drilling. The Obama administration is now walking on the trail that was blazed by his predecessor.
First, here is a story from the Bush–era. Opening up the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling was a top priority of President Bush. During 2001–2002 I spent 14 months in all seasons in the Arctic Refuge and had many conversations with Fran Mauer, the then lead wildlife biologist with the refuge office in Fairbanks.
In 2001 a US Senate Committee asked then Secretary of Interior Gale Norton detailed information about the Porcupine River Caribou Herd (PCH) that calve in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain where drilling was proposed. Norton asked Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a report on the caribou — Fran Mauer was assigned the task.
Fran prepared the caribou report and sent it to Norton. After a few months he was sent a faxed copy of the report that Norton had sent to the US Senate. Fran was horrified — Norton had replaced his report with something else entirely. Fran went to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) who then started an investigation. On October 21, 2001 in a front–page story in The Washington Post Michael Gurnwald exposed Norton’s wrongdoing, “when Norton formally replied to the committee, she left out the agency’s scientific data that suggested caribou could be affected by oil drilling, while including its data that supported her case for exploration in the refuge, documents show. Norton also added data that was just wrong.”
Norton’s letter to Senator Fran Murkowski dated July 11, 2001 states, “Figure 2 shows the extent of (caribou) calving during 1983–2000. Concentrated calving occurred primarily outside of the 1002 Area (where drilling was proposed) in 11 of the last 18 years.” Whereas, Fran Mauer’s original report states, “Figure 2 shows the extent of calving during 1983–2000. ... There have been PCH calving concentrations within the 1002 Area for 27 of 30 years.” [underlined–bold are added to emphasize the key issue]
“This went way beyond spin,” said PEER national field director Eric Wingerter. “They manipulated the data in an attempt to manipulate Congress. Norton’s big mistake here was getting caught.” Wingerter also called for Norton’s resignation. In 2006 Norton resigned following an ethics scandal — no relation to oil drilling; and then few months later joined Shell Oil — to promote oil drilling.
Fast forward to right now. Dr. Charles Monnett, a wildlife biologist with BOEMRE and one of the country’s top Arctic scientists was suddenly suspended on July 18. Ten days later the PEER filed a scientific misconduct complaint on behalf of Dr. Monnett.
In 2006 Dr. Monnett and a colleague published a seven–page article in the peer–reviewed journal Polar Biology . The article reported sightings of four drowned polar bears in the Beaufort Sea in 2004. With Arctic warming sea ice is melting at an unprecedented rate creating large expanses of open water. At times Polar bears are swimming much longer distances, but finding no sea ice to rest or feed, are dying of exhaustion. Dr. Monnet brought all these to the world’s attention.
The Interior Inspector General is apparently investigating that five–year old paper.
“Ever since this paper was published, Dr. Monnett has been subjected to escalating official harassment, culminating in his recent virtual house arrest,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “This is a cautionary tale with a deeply chilling message for any federal scientist who dares to publish groundbreaking research on conditions in the Arctic. ... Despite bold rhetoric about respecting science, this case illustrates that federal scientists working in controversial areas today are at greater risk than during the Bush administration.”
On July 28, Suzanne Goldenberg wrote (published with my well–known polar bear photo taken in the Beaufort Sea) in Guardian, “The Obama administration has been accused of hounding the scientist so it can open up the fragile region to drilling by Shell and other big oil companies.” Exactly a week later the administration did grant Shell the permit.