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.
But why is scientific knowledge about polar bear so threatening to Shell’s drilling plan?
On November 24, 2010 the Obama administration designated 187,157 square miles (approximately 120 million acres) in Arctic Alaska as a ‘critical habitat’ for polar bears threatened by disappearing sea ice due to climate change. Nearly 95% of this designated habitat is in the sea ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of Arctic Alaska. Two days later I wrote an essay with these concluding words, “the question remains — will the President deny–or–grant Shell the permit to go drill–and–destroy the critical habitat of polar bears that he just designated? Let us hope he will do the right thing.”
Caribou is a signature species of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while polar bear is a signature species of the Arctic Ocean. Unsurprisingly Mauer and Monnet are silenced by successive administrations to promote destructive oil drilling in the Arctic.
We Always Lie to Get the Permit, Duh
Leah Donahey walked me through a few facts about Shell’s spill response plan that BOEMRE rubber–stamped earlier this month.
Shell claims that they’ll be able to recover 95 percent of oil spilled in Arctic water using mechanical containment and recovery efforts. However, the USGS June 2011 report states that in broken ice conditions, the amount of oil that could be cleaned up using mechanical recovery techniques is estimated at a mere 1 to 20 percent. Recovery rates for the Deepwater Horizon spill was 3 percent, and for the Exxon Valdez spill it was 8–9 percent.
Did Shell lie? Heck, yes!
Oil companies put whatever in their exploration plan and if all goes well the federal agency will rubber–stamp it. Consider this: In their Deepwater Horizon exploration plan that MMS had approved, BP had pledged that they would protect sensitive species including walrus, sea otters and sea lions — all cold–water species not found in the Gulf of Mexico. They did a cut–and–paste from some Arctic document.
Shell’s worst–case oil spill discharge is based on conditions in the Arctic on August 1, when the ocean is mostly free of sea ice, temperatures are above freezing, nearly 24–hour daylight and storms are few and less severe. But they plan to drill from July 10 through October 31. By early to mid October the Arctic Ocean freezes over and it is mostly dark with extremely cold temperatures and nasty blizzards. I spent an enormous amount of time up there in all seasons and I can tell you that the difference between August 1 and October 15 is like this — you’ll feel like you’re on two different planets.
BP had stated in their exploration plan for Deepwater Horizon that they would be able to handle a worst–case scenario of a spill that discharges 162,000 barrels a day, nearly three times more than the highest spill per day that actually happened in the Gulf blowout.
MMS rubber–stamped BP’s worst–case blowout scenario and BOMERE has rubber–stamped Shell’s worst–case blowout scenario even though it is based on the best conditions in the Arctic Ocean.
If you thought clean up effort of the Deepwater Horizon spill was a nightmare, think again. For Shell’s Arctic operation — the nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away. “It’d take a week to 18 days for response vessels to arrive on sight, and 39 to 74 days to drill a relief well. This means any spill occurring well before October could mean cleanup would be pushed into the nine months when the Arctic Ocean is completely covered with ice,” Leah told me. “In fact, Shell admits that it cannot safely or effectively respond to any spill that would occur more than 21 days into the Arctic drilling season.”
How would Shell deal with this problem? “Shell plans to leave the spilled oil until spring comes and the ice thaws. This ‘leave in place’ plan is no plan at all,” Leah explained.
So far I’ve only mentioned oil in the water, and oil underneath ice, but what about methane?
BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster released an enormous amount of methane that created massive dead zones. Methane sucks out oxygen from water and chokes all life to death. Methane concentrations in areas of the Gulf had reached 100,000 times than normal with hotspots that reached a million times than normal — no life could ever survive that.
Both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas have large but unknown quantities of methane underneath their sea floors. Already large quantities of methane have been escaping rapidly in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf due to warming of subsea permafrost there. Also know that methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Scientists are very worried about potentially massive amount of methane escape from both terrestrial and subsea permafrost due to Arctic warming — if that happens it’d be catastrophic for the planet.
Now imagine Shell’s operation has caused a spill on October 1 that begins spewing oil–and–methane. According to Shell’s brilliant ‘leave in place’ plan spilled oil will float all over in the ocean, underneath the ice. And, unlike in the Gulf of Mexico where part of the methane could move up the water column and then escape into the air, in the Arctic Ocean from mid October on there is no chance of escape as the water is covered over with ice, except few patches of polynyas — open water between sea ice. Trapped methane would certainly accelerate creation of huge dead zones. Come summer, after the ice thaws, when Shell finally gets ready to deal with the spill, instead of finding an Arctic Ocean bursting with new life — seal pups, fish, birds, polar bears — we would find an Arctic that is dead, totally dead.
Marine scientist Samantha Joye visited the Gulf seafloor nearly eight months after BP’s blowout. We saw her inside a tiny submarine and she exclaimed, “Yeah, it looks like everything is dead.”
Also know that everything grows very slowly in the Arctic Ocean compared to temperate and tropical oceans. A dead Arctic sea will take much longer to heal.
Did BOEMRE do a methane study in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas? Heck, no!
Incrementally and Cumulatively Why Not Kill It All?
The July 15 letter to James Kendall states, “NEPA requires an analysis of the incremental effects of Shell’s proposed Beaufort Sea drilling when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions.”
So what else is Shell planning beyond their Beaufort Sea drilling? As I mentioned above Shell also submitted exploration plan on May 12 to drill six exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea of Arctic Alaska — three in 2012 and three in 2013.
The Beaufort and Chukchi are two adjacent seas, one north and the other west and northwest of the terrestrial landmass in Arctic Alaska. For animals like endangered Bowhead whales and threatened polar bears there is no border — they migrate freely through both seas.
One of the crucial things the July 15 letter points out is that the “cumulative effects” that Shell’s multi–sea, multi–year drilling plans will have on the Arctic Ocean ecology and on the Inupiat communities. The letter continues on to say, “If Shell drills its wells in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2012 and 2013, as it intends, Bowheads may encounter Shell’s exploration activities in both seas over two consecutive years. Thousands of bowheads will be potentially affected by the drilling, ice management, borehole seismic surveying, and vessel traffic, and the danger of a biologically significant impact will be especially high if cows and calves are exposed to the multiple disturbances.”
The Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193 however is caught up in a lawsuit brought by four Inupiat and eleven environmental organizations in the 9th Circuit US District Court for the District of Alaska — Native Village of Point Hope, City of Point Hope, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, REDOIL, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and the World Wildlife Fund.
I’ve spent much time along the Chukchi Sea coast in the Inupiat community of Point Lay and also visited Point Hope. I wrote a 14–page standing declaration in support of that lawsuit.
Leah Donahey explained to me that after the court makes their decision, then the Lease Sale 193 has to be approved first, and then BOEMRE has to deem the exploration plan submitted before any permit is considered or issued.
One of the crucial permits Shell still needs for both their Beaufort and Chukchi operations are air quality permits for their drill ships Frontier Discoverer and Kulluk that they intend to use. Sarah Saunders of Earthjustice gave me a timeline of where that process is: On March 31, 2010 the EPA issued the final air quality permit for the Chukchi Sea and on April 9 the one for the Beaufort Sea. Then on May 3 a group of Inupiat and environmental organizations filed a petition for review of both permits with the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) of the EPA. Separately the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope filed petitions for review of the permits — on May 3 for the Chukchi permit and on May 12 for the Beaufort permit. On December 30, 2010, EAB issued its order denying in part the petitions for review and remanding the permits back to the EPA. On July 1, 2011 EPA released the revised draft permits for public comments, which were due August 5.
But why all these fuss about air quality permits?
The July 15 letter states, “The fleet of large vessels Shell plans to use for its Beaufort Sea operations will emit large amounts of air pollution that could harm human health and the environment, and significantly degrade the Arctic’s clean air. Shell will emit these pollutants into a rapidly changing Arctic environment and in relatively close proximity to Alaska Native villages. … Shell may emit up to 336 tons per year of NOX and up to 28 tons per year of PM2.5 (fine particles). Both of these pollutants are harmful to human health. … NEPA requires BOEMRE to analyze the effects of these emissions.”
You see, slowly, incrementally, and cumulatively Shell might kill the Arctic Ocean. The government would be a partner in that crime if they give Shell the key to do so.
Taking Our Protest to the Streets
The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are remarkable marine sanctuaries. They’re home to — estimated 10,000 endangered Bowhead whales, estimated 3,600 to 4,600 threatened polar bears, more than 60,000 Beluga whales, Pacific walrus, three species of seals, numerous species of birds and fish, and various tiny creatures all the way down to the krill that we don’t see but that provide food that makes much of that marine life possible.
The Inupiat communities across the Arctic coast of both seas — Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Barrow, Wainright, Point Lay, Point Hope and Kivalina — depend on the rich bounty of the Arctic Ocean for subsistence foods. And, their cultural and spiritual identities are inextricably linked to the seas and its creatures.
In 2010 the National Marine Fisheries Service completed a biological opinion recognizing the importance of Camden Bay and its surrounding areas in the Beaufort Sea as a feeding and resting area for endangered bowhead whales. Shell’s wells would be near Flaxman Island and Brownlow Point, west of Camden Bay — mere miles away from the feeding and resting area. Shell would drill there from July 10 through October 31, while Bowhead whales would migrate through there from beginning of September through mid October — an unfortunate crossing of paths.
The August 4 press release I mentioned before states, “Shell estimates close to 5,600 migrating Bowhead whales, almost half the population of the species could be exposed to sound and disturbance from the drilling and icebreaking that could cause them to change their behavior and avoid the feeding area. This could harm the population, particularly mothers and young calves, and could affect Alaska Native communities that rely on the Bowhead whale and other species to sustain their subsistence way of life.”
Shell’s oil drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas is a species survival issue for endangered Bowhead whales and threatened polar bears, and is a human rights issue for the Inupiat.
Homelands of indigenous communities all over the world are currently being destroyed by reckless resource extraction projects. South American indigenous rights and gender studies scholar Dr. Manuela Picq in a recent article in Al Jazeera wrote how indigenous people in Ecuador who are “fighting to preserve access to water in their communities” are being branded as terrorists by their government and are being put in jail. But she also wrote about their resistance movement, “As things intensify, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador will continue to take their protest to the streets. They will also focus on organizing international pressure on their government.”
Shell still needs more permits before they can poke holes in the Arctic seabed come July. Inupiat and environmental organizations are determined to fight Shell and the government — legally and by taking their protest to the streets. Leah Donahey told me that there would be several rallies to protest Shell’s Arctic drilling this fall in Washington, DC. I’ll be there and will keep you posted.
Also, we mustn’t forget our climate–ravaged Earth — from burning of fossil fuels. Last November I wrote an essay in which I identified five resource extraction projects — oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, coal extraction in Arctic Alaska, coal extraction in Appalachia, and Tar Sands development in Alberta. If some or all of these projects take off, we’ll be locked in with another 100 or more years of burning fossil fuel, and destroy the planet along the way. On his energy policy President Obama is a kin of his predecessor — he is taking us toward a coaley–oily future. Unsurprisingly Big Coal and Big Oil run Big America.
We must envision and fight for a sustainable and clean energy future for our sake, our future generation and for all life on earth.