The Obama administration granted on Monday final permission for Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea.
That permission came from the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which previously required the company to halt drilling before it approached oil deposits. That restricted approval came because one of Shell's emergency response ships, the ice breaker Fennica, required repairs in Portland, Oregon. Now that the Fennica is back in the Arctic, the bureau gave the company the green light to drill for oil.
"Due to the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic region, drilling requirements are more stringent up there," Greg Julian, the press secretary for BSEE, told VICE News. "[Shell] must have all of the capabilities on hand that they're going to need."
That equipment includes a capping stack, which is aboard the Fennica and would be lowered down over a blown-out well, and a piece of equipment called a containment dome, which Julian said could be deployable within eight days and syphon leaking oil or gas to a barge.
Shell Noble Discoverer is on hand to drill a relief well if the first well, which is being drilled by the Polar Pioneer. Julian said a federal inspector is aboard each Shell rig.
'You can't make drilling in the Arctic safe.'
Critics of Shell's Arctic drilling program point to the difficulty in responding to and containing a spill in even the relatively calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where it took 80 days to plug the Deepwater Horizon blow out five years ago.
"I won't speculate on what might, or might not, happen, but we've laid in all of these stringent requirements, so that all of those resources are present on the site, unlike what took place in Gulf in the past," Julian said.
He conceded that the Arctic's harsh conditions could make dealing with an accident more difficult. "There's no question. And that's why these stringent requirements are in place," he added.
A spill in the Arctic would be disastrous, says Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist for Greenpeace who specializes on the region. He said that the Arctic's tough environment, with factors like poor visibility and cold weather, could cause logistical problems that hamper the traditional oil spill tactics like using booms to control the spill.
"The thing about blowouts is that oftentimes the blowout actually damages the oil rig," he said. "You're starting from a situation of chaos."
He said that from there, the response might not go as planned; the worst-case scenario, he said, would be an accident at the end of the season and an uncontrolled blowout that isn't fixed before the area is iced over. The possible use of dispersants if there was a spill, he said, could also introduce a toxic element that impacts the wider Arctic ecosystem.
"You can't make drilling in the Arctic safe," Donaghy said.
Shell is required to have sufficient capability to drill a relief well, which could tap into a blown-out well and shut it down.
But relief wells can be tricky, says David Pritchard, who was a member of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group. It's a "meticulous" task, he said, because the relief well has to intersect with the blown-out well.
"That takes time, and it's also complicated by the environment," Pritchard told VICE News.
He said that drilling a relief well is a logistically complicated operation, and that he thinks the ability to be able to drill a second relief well is important, because there's no guarantee that the first relief well will succeed.
Julian, of the BSEE, said that the Noble Discoverer could dig a second relief well if the first well failed.
Commander Thomas Ottenwaelder, who works for the marine environmental response division of the US Coast Guard, said that if there was a spill, cleaning it up or stopping a blowout lies with Shell.
"Shell is required to have oil spill response plans," Ottenwaelder told VICE News. The Coast Guard, he said, would be the federal on-scene coordinator in the case of an accident and would work together with Shell and other entities.
He said the Coast Guard also has "pollution response equipment" that has been cached in 18 different coastal locations in the region.
Ottenwaelder declined to speculate on how easily a spill or other accident could be contained before it was disastrous.
"That is a challenging area to work in," he added. "The weather is difficult, and it's further out in the remote areas where people are going to."
Shell did not respond to a request for comment on its plans.
Robert Bea, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, led the Deepwater Horizon Study Group, and is also a former Shell engineer. He said that he thinks what the company is doing is too risky given what the consequences would be of an uncontrolled blowout.
"To see a significant amount of oil allowed to reach the open environment — so that you can't successful burn it or contain it — is something that I don't want to imagine," he told VICE News.
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