Last month Royal Dutch Shell was given approval to drill at two sites in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, but were informed by the Federal government that they lacked the appropriate equipment to ‘safely’ drill into oil-bearing rock some 8,000 feet below the ocean floor. But now, with a key safety vessel that would address well blow outs— a vessel that was previously blocked by protesters in Portland—in place, Shell has applied to amend their permits so as to commence drilling into the deeper, deepwater area.
The safety vessel in question, the Fennica, is a Finnish icebreaker with the primary role of “[carrying and maneuvering] a capping stack, a roughly 30-foot device that can be lowered over a wellhead to act like a spigot to stop a blowout.” Federal regulations require that the capping stack be staged and ready for deployment with 24 hours of an oil well blowout. The measure is intended to prevent a repeat of the blowout, and botched repair efforts, that caused 210 million gallons of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico from the Macondo oil well and Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010.
But the Fennica encountered damage to its hull as it left a port in the Aleutians Islands on July 3, and had to be sent to Portland, Oregon for repairs, stalling Shell’s drilling efforts. Greenpeace protesters in kayaks, and hanging from St. Johns Bridge over the Willamette River managed to prevent the vessel from leaving for the Arctic for several days, but eventually the Fennica was able to leave. With the Fennica in place in the Arctic, it is likely that the government will grant approval for the Polar Pioneer—and the nearby Noble Discoverer—to begin drilling 8,000 feet below the ocean floor, beginning to tap some 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
All of which could, very easily end in disaster. Efforts by Shell to drill in the Arctic with the Noble Discoverer in 2012 began with a vessel dragging anchor and nearly washing ashore, were stalled by an oil spill containment system being “crushed like a beer can,” during tests, before the vessel later caught fire, and in another instance did actually run aground. And the environmental concerns are just as staggeringly clear as Shell’s ineptitude; drilling activities exacerbate climate change, jeopardize the habitats of polar bears, foxes, reindeer, and oxen in the region, and puts the homes of some 13 million people at risk.
Shell is awaiting a response for the amendment to its permits, which currently require it complete activities in the region by the end of September.
Lead photo © Mark Meyer/Greenpeace, second photo via Flickr