Author: Sean Cockerham
Source: Brisbane Times
Date: 5 January, 2013
WASHINGTON: Critics want a halt to offshore Arctic drilling in the wake of Shell’s latest mishap in the waters off Alaska, but there is no sign the Obama administration and key members of the US Congress are backing away from their support for drilling in the sensitive region.
The Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, let Shell begin preparatory drilling in Alaska’s Arctic waters this northern summer, for the first time in two decades. Environmental groups on Thursday called for the administration to immediately stop issuing permits for Arctic offshore oil exploration as a result of Monday’s grounding of Shell’s drilling rig in Alaska.
But Mr Salazar is not willing to put the permits on hold.
”The administration understands that the Arctic environment presents unique challenges, and that’s why the Secretary has repeatedly made clear that any approved drilling activities will be held to the highest safety and environmental standards,” Mr Salazar’s spokesman, Blake Androff, said on Thursday.
Mr Salazar has not given Shell permission to drill deep enough to hit oil. The company hopes to get that approval in the northern summer.
The chairman of the House Resources Committee, Republican Doc Hastings, is a drilling supporter, and that has not changed. ”Rather than jumping to conclusions, he believes the focus right now needs to be on safely resolving the situation,” said his spokeswoman, Jill Strait.
Shell is taking some heat. A group of 46 House Democrats released a statement on Thursday saying they wanted answers from the Coast Guard and the Interior Department about the incident.
”This is the latest in a series of alarming blunders,” said the House Sustainable Energy and Environmental Coalition Caucus. But the group represents a small minority of the 435-member House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans.
Shell’s drilling rig Kulluk broke free from its towline on Monday after running into a winter storm in the Gulf of Alaska and grounded off Sitkalidak Island, just south of Kodiak Island. A salvage operation is planned but there are worries about a potential spill of the estimated 705,000 litres of diesel fuel and other petrol products on board.
The US Coast Guard is sending a team to investigate the incident, Coast Guard captain Paul Mehler said at a press conference in Anchorage on Thursday.
It was the latest in a string of incidents that have dogged Shell’s activities in the far north. In September the spill containment dome on Shell’s response barge, the Arctic Challenger, was, according to an internal email by a federal regulator, ”crushed like a beer can” during testing in Washington state’s Puget Sound.
And a different Shell drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, dragged its anchor in Alaska’s Dutch Harbour in July, had a small fire in its smokestack and was cited for safety and pollution issues.
”This string of mishaps by Shell makes it crystal clear that we are not ready to drill in the Arctic,” said Charles Clusen, the director of National Parks and Alaska Projects for the Natural Resources Defence Council.
”It’s just another of the long line of incidents that have bedevilled Shell throughout the year that prove operating in the Arctic safely is a misnomer,” said Ben Ayliffe, the head of the Arctic campaign for Greenpeace. ”You wonder how much more the US authorities have to see before it’s clear to everyone that Shell shouldn’t be operating there.”
The vessel that was towing the rig is owned and run by the politically connected Louisiana company Edison Chouest Offshore. The company was the top campaign contributor in the most recent election cycle for Mr Hastings, and also donated heavily to the Alaska Republicans Don Young and Senator Lisa Murkowski, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics in Washington. Edison Chouest is also among the top donors to the Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich, also an ardent supporter of Arctic drilling.