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Obama Tarnishes His Own Environmental Legacy

Gives go-ahead to Arctic drilling

How to explain a president who had to deal with the catastrophic blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 and spewed some 5 million barrels of oil for 86 days, yet now has unaccountably invited a still greater disaster by giving conditional approval to Shell to once again attempt to drill in the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska, one of the most hostile environments on Earth?

The area is shallow — drilling will be in only 140 feet of water, which does not compare with the
Shell's drilling platform aground in Alaska

Deepwater Horizon that exploded while operating in 5,000 feet of water in the disaster of five years ago. But shallow waters can produce much more turbulent wave forms, up to 50 feet high, in a region known for violent storms.

message not received

Shell has hardly won anyone's confidence with a record of mishaps beginning with its prior attempt to drill three summers ago. After delays by sea ice, a $400 million containment dome it had constructed to cap a well in case of a blowout was "crushed like a beer can" in a testing accident.

Shell had already spent $292 million on upgrading its drilling platform named Kulluk when, in preparing to resume drilling in 2013, the company chose January in which to move the platform across the Gulf of Alaska to Seattle for further maintenance.

Kulluk is circular with the diameter of a football field and is half the weight of the Titanic. On the voyage south, its tug lost four engines to sea water intake, the drill rig broke its tow lines in 40-foot seas, a cutter tried in vain
to tow both stricken vessels, a second towline snapped when yet another ship made the attempt to control the platform, the crew had to be plucked from the drill ship by Coast Guard helicopters, and after a third towline snapped with two ships pulling the Kulluk, 50 knot winds and 35 foot seas made the risk of lives too great and forced the rescue crew to cut the drilling platform loose to run aground on Kodiak Island.

A lengthy article in the New York Times Sunday magazine section recounted the cascade of troubles, but the message has not registered with Shell. This page reported the Shell calamities over two years ago with something like relief that the oil giant might be discouraged, but no.

all fixed

The Interior Department has evidently seen to the prevention of a recurrence of the Deepwater Horizon debacle with and new safety regulations and "significantly strengthened and updated drilling regulations", as reported in The New York Times. Safety requirements on blowout preventers have been tightened, too.

But the problem of Deepwater Horizon was that the blowout preventer could not be activated. And another branch of the Interior Department undercuts some of the lofty assurances that all is now well. Its Safety and Environmental Management unit says "the new regulatory system has yet to show measurable improvements". The problem is humans making mistakes, says this Wall Street Journal report.

But the greater concern still is the harsh conditions well out at sea. The Alaskan Arctic has no deepwater port. The closest is in the Aleutian Islands at Dutch Harbor, a thousand miles to the south through the Bering Strait.

The Coast Guard lacks an adequate presence in the region. The Congressional Research Service says at least $3 billion is needed for equipment and ships such as icebreakers, which would be critical for reaching a stricken drilling platform in a sea filled with ice floes, but the Obama administration has offered only $8 million “to study” building one. The Coast Guard has only one of medium size and two heavy-duty ships, both from the 1970s and both inoperative. Former Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp wanted six. He warned Congress in 2011 that we are dangerously unprepared to deal with a major spill in the Arctic. What if Shell brings in successful wells, a storm pulls a platform anchor and the giant bulk of the shifting platform snaps a drill stem? What will the challenges be in capping a well, and what happens if the job has not been completed when sea ice begins to form at summer's end and ships working to control the spill must instead let it run over the winter or risk getting frozen in the ice?

1 Comment for “Obama Tarnishes His Own Environmental Legacy”

  1. J. Thomas

    It would be such a travesty if we suffer this setback. We might wrest control of energy from OPEC! The ramifications of being able to heat our homes in the winter and continue to have transportation available is just awful! I was so looking forward to freezing to death in the dark this coming winter & buying a burro for transportation. The nerve of Obama doing one thing right in this ongoing 8 year disastrous administration.

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