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USCG Pursuing Criminal Investigation Against Shell Drilling Rig In Alaska

1:29 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Noble Discoverer

Things just took a turn to the worse for Shell Alaska, and their scam to get two oil drilling rigs the hell out of Alaska before 2013, so as to avoid paying taxes here.

While its companion drilling rig, Kulluk, lies wallowing in the rocky surf off the southern coast of the Kodiak Island group, the Shell Alaska drilling rig Noble Discoverer lies impounded about 300 miles to the northeast, in Seward Harbor.  It pulled in to Seward in late November, with propulsion problems.  When the U. S. Coast Guard came aboard, things took a turn for the worse:

[T]he U.S. Coast Guard has launched a criminal investigation into the activities of a 572-foot oil drilling and exploration ship run by the Noble corporation, a group contracted by Royal Dutch Shell to search for oil in the arctic. Noble owned the Kulluk drilling rig that ran aground in rough Alaskan seas.

The revelation that another Noble ship working for Shell may have been operating with serious safety and pollution control problems bolstered allegations from environmental activists that the oil industry is unable to conduct safe oil drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean.

The Coast Guard conducted a routine marine safety inspection when Noble’s Discoverer arrived at a Seward, Alaska port in late November. The inspection team found serious issues with the ship’s safety management system and pollution control systems. The inspectors also listed more than a dozen “discrepancies” which, sources tell CBS News, led them to call in the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) to determine if there were violations of federal law.

Sources told CBS News that when criminal investigators arrived, the Noble Discoverer’s crew had been provided with lawyers and declined to be interviewed.

As pointed out by retired University of Alaska Prof. Rick Steiner, in my interview with him yesterday for Firedoglake, the is reason to doubt Shell will be able to drill in the Alaska Arctic at all during 2013:

Phil Munger:  In light of the revelation in the Alaska Dispatch today that Shell was indeed in a hurry to get out of Dodge – eh, Dutch – before New Years to avoid $6 million in taxes, do you have anything to add?

Rick Steiner: I say, great job by the Dispatch reporters on this!

Here again, is perfect evidence that Shell is putting profits over responsible conduct. We have seen this so much in Alaska oil industry and government we are almost desensitized to it.

This entire affair means that we take a “time-out” for 2013…even if the Kulluk (which apparently translates to “Thunder”) can be pulled off, it is almost certainly out of commission for 2013. That means not only that their 2013 Beaufort drilling is done, but also their Chukchi as they need the Beaufort rig as a potential relief rig for the Chukchi.

Anyone convinced that Shell Alaska’s performance here during the 2013 season shows the company ready to pursue more dangerous enterprises, like dealing with billions of gallons of crude oil off of and on our fragile Arctic coasts, needs to pursue another line of work. Read the rest of this entry →

PEER Sues BSEE Over Non-response on FOIA Seeking Arctic Drilling Testing Safety Records

11:04 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

The crushed containment dome from Shell's Arctic Challenger

The activist watchdog organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), filed suit today in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, against the Federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).  The suit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, seeks to force BSEE to “disclose records wrongfully withheld in failing to respond within the statutory deadline to Plaintiff’s five FOIA requests.”

PEER, along with other parties, has been trying to unravel what happened in September, in Puget Sound, when testing of the containment dome apparatus Shell hoped to deploy in the Arctic later that month failed catastrophically. Although BSEE responded in November to an FOIA request from Seattle’s KUOW Radio, they have not responded to any of the similar requests from PEER.  Here’s an extract the environmental NGO’s press release on the suit:

The federal agency overseeing offshore oil and gas operations slated for this spring in Arctic waters lacks basic assurances that disastrous spills and other accidents will be prevented or effectively contained, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At issue are the safeguards required to protect against such known hazards as sea ice, subsurface ice scour and blowouts, as well as specifications for well design and well integrity control.

A relatively new agency called the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), within the Interior Department, has jurisdiction over offshore drilling operations in federal waters, including the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. The agency, however, has not been able to respond to series of requests posed by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act asking for records detailing how BSEE will approach issues ranging from sea ice to spill containment.

“We have yet to see any evidence supporting the claim that Interior has upgraded the lax enforcement enabling the BP Gulf spill. In fact, what few records we have been able to pry loose suggest just the opposite,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization today filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “This material on operational safety should be on the world-wide web, not locked away in a proprietary safe.”

What little information BSSE has disclosed raises more doubts about its independence from industry. In September, following an earlier PEER lawsuit, the agency was forced to concede that it had done only partial and cursory testing with no independent analysis of the results for the capping system to prevent a repeat of the large, lengthy Gulf of Mexico blowout in the sensitive Arctic waters.

Since July, Firedoglake has been covering the strange odyssey of the Arctic Challenger, the old barge Shell is converting to one of the main features of its impending Arctic offshore drilling program.  PEER will keep us updated on progress of its five previous FOIA actions, and of this lawsuit.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced his department’s plan for petroleum development of the region of northwest Alaska known as NPR-A, an area about the size of the state of Maine:

The Interior Department’s plan for managing a vast petroleum reserve on Alaska’s North Slope calls for a roughly 50-50 split between conservation and oil development plus accommodation for a pipeline that could carry offshore Arctic Ocean oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday announced that the plan will allow for development of nearly 12 million acres within the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area roughly the size of Indiana.

Salazar said in his announcement that the plan will guide the transition from leasing and exploration to responsible production and transport of the reserve’s oil and gas.

One feature of the plan Salazar introduced is that it appears it will tie in directly to the infrastructure Shell will need to develop to market the oil it intends to produce from its impending offshore production wells.  However, Alaska GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski is concerned that Salazar’s plan doesn’t give energy giants like Shell some sort of blank slate:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she remained concerned that the plan sets up hurdles for pipelines carrying oil drilled offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to the trans-Alaska pipeline. Salazar should make it clear, she said, that future environmental review of potential pipeline routes will not prohibit their construction or make them prohibitively costly.

In regard to the PEER lawsuit, it isn’t at all clear why BSEE responded to KUOW‘s FOIA, yet seems to have ignored PEER’s five similar requests.

In regard to Salazar’s December 19th announcement, though Sen. Murkowski was critical of the safeguards Interior seems to have put in place in the plan, Alaska’s other U.S. senator, Mark Begich, was less critical:

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said more than 200 exploration wells have been drilled in the NPR-A since the 1940s and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates reserves at 900 million barrels of technically recoverable oil and 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Begich said in a press release that he was pleased that the plan included provisions to transport oil through the reserve but that the Interior Department has not cleared restrictions on petroleum development in the eastern portion.

From my perspective, it seems the Obama administration is bound to support Shell’s endeavors, along with those of other energy companies, in northwestern Alaska, and off its Arctic shores, far more than has any previous administration. Read the rest of this entry →

Shell Oil’s 2012 Arctic Drilling Window Closing

12:08 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

On Monday, Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, wrapping up a trip to Alaska’s North Slope and the offshore Arctic areas where Shell is hoping to drill late this summer, held a press availability:

The opportunity for Shell Oil Co. to drill exploratory wells this year in Alaska’s Arctic is rapidly diminishing and it’s a situation of Shell’s own making, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in Alaska on Monday.

While delays already have led Shell to scale back plans for drilling a total of five wells this year in the Chukchi and Beafort seas, Shell maintained through a spokesman that there’s still time before freezeup to complete some wells and begin work on others.

The main holdup has been transforming a 38-year-old barge into an oil spill containment vessel. Shell also has been dealing with lingering sea ice and challenges with an air emissions permit for a drilling rig.

Salazar spent the weekend in Alaska touring the North Slope and flew some 40 miles over sea ice and water north of Barrow. While he saw significant sea ice, he said that the area around Shell’s most promising prospect, the Burger find in the Chukchi Sea, was clear.

The oil spill containment vessel, now called the Arctic Challenger, is a condition of Shell’s approved exploration plan and must pass Coast Guard inspections and an in-water test before it can be certified for the Arctic, officials have said.

“If they had got it done, they may already be up there today,” Salazar said. “Because the waters in the Chukchi around the so-called Burger find are in fact already open. So it’s not a matter of ice. It’s a matter of whether or not Shell has the mechanical capability to be able to comply with the exploration effort that had been approved by the government.”

I wrote here last week that the “Chances of Shell Oil Drilling in Arctic in 2012 [are] Diminishing by the Hour.”  It didn’t seem as obvious then as it might seem now to Salazar, having toured the potential drilling areas.  And today, Kim Murphy, writing another article for the Los Angeles Times about the trouble-plagued oil recovery vessel Arctic Challenger, notes:

Read the rest of this entry →