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Bill DiBenedetto headshot

Arctic Drilling Decision: Shell’s Chutzpah, Protesters’ Angst


It was called the “paddle in Seattle” when hundreds of kayakers took to the waters of Elliott Bay to protest Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic.

It’s unclear exactly who was paddled, or who will continue to be paddled, however, because despite the local activity in the Pacific Northwest, it looks like Shell will get its way, especially after the Obama administration’s recent conditional approval for Shell to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean off the North Slope of Alaska.

The occasion for the floating, but ultimately meaningless, protest was the arrival last week of the 400-foot-tall Polar Pioneer drill rig at the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5. It’s the first of two giant rigs slated for oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea.

According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s conditional approval letter, Shell’s revised Exploration Plan proposes the drilling of up to six wells within the Burger Prospect, located in approximately 140 feet of water about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright. “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 Arctic drilling vessels will be moored at Terminal 5 under a two-year lease between the Port of Seattle and Foss Maritime, before departing to the Arctic. The lease is the subject of a dispute between the Port of Seattle Commission, Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, and the Seattle City Council. The city agencies want to block the port’s seasonal mooring lease with Foss on somewhat technical grounds. But that is likely a minor irritation for Shell at best, since the Polar Pioneer is comfortably residing at the terminal right now.

President Obama defended the administration’s decision in the wake of furious criticism and cries of betrayal from environmental groups, saying: “I believe that we are going to have to transition off of fossil fuels as a planet in order to prevent climate change … I think it is important to also recognize that this is going to be a transition process. In the meantime, we are going to continue to use fossil fuels, and when it can be done safely, and appropriately, U.S. production of oil and natural gas is important.”

Shell’s safety record in the Arctic is not exactly stellar. It ceased Arctic exploration more than two years ago after various problems, including an oil rig fire and safety failures. The company has spent about $6 billion for exploration in the Arctic, a region that’s estimated to have about 20 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. Given all that, Shell is not likely to give up on its oily Arctic dreams.

Perhaps Bill McKibben, who teaches environmental studies at Middlebury College and is the founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, summed up the situation best in a scathing New York Times op-ed piece, entitled “Obama’s Catastrophic Climate-Change Denial.”

The decision to give Shell Oil the go-ahead to drill in the Arctic “shows why we may never win the fight against climate change,” he wrote. “Even in this most extreme circumstance, no one seems able to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel industry. No one ever says no.”

And that’s just the first paragraph.

Shell plans to drill in a place where there is “no hope” of cleaning up the inevitable oil spills, he continued. But what’s worse is the “irresponsibility of Shell, now abetted by the White House. A quarter century ago, scientists warned that if we kept burning fossil fuel at current rates we’d melt the Arctic. The fossil fuel industry (and most everyone else in power) ignored those warnings, and what do you know: The Arctic is melting, to the extent that people now are planning to race yachts through the Northwest Passage, which until very recently required an icebreaker to navigate.”

Despite the evidence, Shell applied to be “first in line to drill for yet more oil in the Chukchi Sea, between Alaska and Siberia. Wash, rinse, repeat. Talk about salting wounds and adding insult to injury: It’s as if the tobacco companies were applying for permission to put cigarette machines in cancer wards.”

And Obama is letting Arctic drilling happen! As McKibben concludes: “This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground.”

Image: 85245961 by Backbone Campaign via Flickr CC

Bill DiBenedetto headshotBill DiBenedetto

Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

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