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01/08/2013

Shell's Arctic Disasters

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The drilling ship Kulluk sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska (U.S. Coast Guard)

Last March, I wrote about how Royal Dutch Shell was "preemptively"suing the Sierra Club to stop us from making the case that drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean is risky and unsafe. As it turned out, Shell then spent the rest of 2012 making that argument far more convincingly than we could have. Shell ended the year with one of its drill ships grounded dangerously on a rocky Gulf of Alaska shore near Kodiak Island. But the company's problems started long before that.

On the way up to Alaska, Shell lost control of the drill ship Nobel Discoverer, and the company's oil-spill containment dome was damaged during a failed sea trial off the comparatively mild coast of Washington. Not an auspicious start.

Then, after claiming that it could clean up 95 percent of a major oil spill in the Arctic, Shell backtracked to say that it would only "encounter" that much spilled oil.It also brought enormous political pressure to secure a Clean Air Act waiverfor higher levels of particulate-matter, nitrogen-oxides, and ammonia pollution and pushed the Coast Guard to lower safety standards for its oil-spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger. As of last week, the Coast Guard was investigating the crew of the Noble Discoverer for possible violations of federal law.

But the grounding over New Year's of the drill ship Kulluk, with more than 150,000 gallons of oil on board, has to be the final straw. Thankfully, the Coast Guard was able to rescue the rig's 18-person crew, but not before a hellish 18 hours of 40-mph-plus winds and 35-foot seas in the dark Arctic winter.

The grounding of the Kulluk points to a common thread in Shell's Arctic misadventures: greed. Originally, the drill ship was supposed to stay in Dutch Harbor over the winter. What prompted Shell's sudden decision to move the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer out of the state before January 1, 2013 by undertaking a risky crossing of the Gulf of Alaska? The company wanted to avoid paying millions in taxes by exiting Alaska.

What Shell's doing in the Arctic is a perfect lesson in the deadly allure of "extreme" oil. Whether it's deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, digging for tar sands oil in the forests of Canada, or attempting to drill in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, the risks and dangers far outweigh any possible benefit beyond a thirst for profits.

And even if we could justify risking pristine Arctic wilderness, the habitat for dozens of threatened and endangered species, and the livelihoods of Alaska's indigenous people (which we can't), there's still the problem of climate disruption. The U.S. government estimates 26 billion barrels of oil might be under the Arctic Ocean. Even if we could safely get to that oil, burning and releasing that much carbon pollution into our atmosphere would mean a global climate disaster. The International Energy Agency estimatesthat two-thirds of known global fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we are to have a shot at stabilizing warming at 2 degrees Celsius, which itself is a risky target -- more than double the warming we’ve already felt.

For Shell, 2012 was a year of dangerous mishaps that show why oil cannot be safely drilled from the Arctic Ocean. For the rest of us, it was a year of climate disasters -- from droughts and wildfires to record heat and the superstorm Sandy -- that show why it's more important than ever that we move beyond oil for good.

Send a message to President Obama: We can't trust Shell in America's Arctic.

--Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club

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