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An Interview with Rick Steiner on the Kulluk Grounding Impact on Shell Arctic Drilling in 2013 and Beyond

9:08 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Retired University of Alaska Professor Rick Steiner is, along with Dr. Riki Ott, regarded internationally as a first-rank expert on Alaska’s marine ecosystems.  Additionally, Steiner is a highly sought after expert on the effects of oil spills on maritime environments.  Like Dr. Ott, Steiner was recently awarded the Alaska Muckraker of the Year Award from the state’s pre-eminent marine environment advocacy group, Cook InletKeeper.

Since his retirement, Prof. Steiner has been able to act more independently, and travel significantly more, than he was able to do while working in a university atmosphere and schedule.  After leaving the University of Alaska in 2010, Rick began an organization, Oasis Earth.  Here’s the organization’s description of what Rick is currently doing with Oasis Earth:

Today, he conducts the Oasis Earth project – a global consultancy working with NGOs, governments, industry, and civil society to speed the transition to an environmentally sustainable society. Oasis Earth conducts Rapid Assessments for NGOs in developing nations on critical conservation challenges, reviews environmental assessments, and conducts fully developed studies. Steiner presents Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril to audiences around the world, a presentation on the global environmental crisis and urgently needed solutions, using over 500 images from the UNEP International Photographic Competition for the Environment and NASA images of Earth from space. He continues to work on oil and environment issues, including oil spill prevention, response preparedness, damage assessment, and restoration. His primary focus is now on ecological habitat and biodiversity conservation; establishing Citizens Advisory Councils to advise industry and government; conservation finance; and extractive industry and environment issues, particularly oil, gas, and mining, in the Arctic and globally. Oasis Earth seeks to persuade government, industry, and civil society of the urgency of the global environment crisis, and the necessary regional solutions, particularly in government policy to incentivize sustainability.

I’ve known Prof. Steiner for over 20 years.  I dedicated Shadows, my 1993 electroacoustic musical composition about the Exxon Valdez oil spill to Rick, honoring his leadership role in critical decisions early in the spill, that helped save the fledgeling Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation Sawmill Bay hatchery from extinction.

I’ve asked Rick a few questions about what the impact the grounding of the Kulluk might have on how the public perceives Shell as a viable operator in Alaska’s Arctic, and about the impact of damage to the vessel on Shell’s immediate future plans.  For the sake of clarity, I’ll use my real name in the interview, rather than my longstanding Firedoglake nom de blog.

Near the end of the interview, Prof. Steiner predicts the Kulluk fiasco will keep Shell from drilling at all in the Alaskan Arctic during 2013.  This is significant, as Steiner is one of the most knowledgable people around on this.

Phil Munger:  You’ve been questioning Shell Oil’s methods, plans and equipment for their offshore drilling hopes in Alaska for quite a while. Whether it has been Bristol Bay, the Chukchi Sea or the Beaufort Sea, you have drawn attention to specific shortcomings in each of the company’s projections. Are there common flaws in their efforts and planning that you’ve been able to discern?

Rick Steiner:  Yes. Shell continues to assert that the company knows what it is doing offshore in the Arctic, and clearly, it doesn’t. Essentially Shell says: “don’t worry, be happy…trust us.” Well, we don’t.

The Kulluk grounding is the most recent in a long line of calamities from Shell’s 2012 Arctic drilling program: the last-minute scramble to retrofit the two rigs, the countless problems with the Arctic Challenger response barge, the failed containment dome test, the near-grounding of the Noble Discoverer in Dutch Harbor, the cursory testing (for about 1 hour only) of the crucial capping stack that would be used to stem a blowout, the stack fire in the Discoverer, the propulsion issues in the Discoverer requiring it to be towed into Seward, the serious safety violations on the Discoverer causing the Coast Guard to detain it in port, and so on. Shell and the Obama administration are in such a rush to drill the Arctic OCS it seems they think they oil may leave…well, it won’t. They are behaving as though this is a Bristol Bay red salmon run, and unless they go and harvest it immediately, they’ll lose it. But this oil and gas has been there for millennia, and there should be no rush to pump it up into our disgracefully inefficient energy economy. These guys need to chill for a bit, and reconsider this folly.

The Kulluk grounding is only the most recent in an embarrassing string of failures not just for Shell, but for the Department of Interior (DOI) as well. (Shell’s Arctic drill plan has too many holes).

And that Shell and its contractors did not have a contingency plan for losing a tow on the Kulluk in heavy weather is simply beyond comprehension. It shows the poor safety culture, and contingency planning capability in Shell and the DOI. This is why we need an Arctic Regional Citizens Advisory Council (Arctic RCAC) to involve citizen stakeholders in oversight of all activities offshore.

Phil Munger:   Shell’s use of the Arctic Challenger, Noble Discoverer and Kulluk seem to be adaptation of proven, hardy hulls, built to withstand the ice, at first glance.  Yet the vessels’ age and long terms of non-use warrant notice.  Shell acquired the vessels rather inexpensively, but spent a lot attempting to update them.  Do you have any thoughts on why they pursued this strategy for important assets of such an expensive campaign?

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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 →

What Really Happened When Shell Oil’s Containment Dome Failed in Puget Sound Last Month? PEER Seeks to Find Out

10:03 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

(photo: hyperion327 / flickr)

Four weeks ago, on Saturday, September 16th, in clear, calm, warm summer weather on Puget Sound, something happened while Shell Oil was testing its new, post-Deepwater Horizon oil blowout containment dome.  The dome system was being deployed during a certification test being performed by Shell, its agent in the refurbishment and system makeover of the 35-year-old barge, Arctic Challenger, Superior Marine Technical Services, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

Something happened.  The test failed miserably, and the containment dome was severely damaged.  At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported the following:

The refurbishment was completed last week and the vessel underwent sea trials in Washington’s Puget Sound, and a series of tests were successfully completed on the newly designed Arctic containment system, Op de Weegh said.

“However, during a final test, the containment dome aboard the Arctic Challenger barge was damaged,” she said.

Sources familiar with the testing said the mishap occurred when one of several clump weights was placed into about 160 feet of water to mark the area of a theoretical oil spill, to see if the containment dome aboard the barge could be lowered over it.

“When they came back to find it, it [the weight] was lost, submerged into the silt,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation.

Engineers launched a mini-submarine known as a Remotely Operated Vehicle, which is part of Shell’s plan for putting any oil spill containment equipment into place, to help get the oil containment dome carried aboard the Challenger set over the “leak.”

“They got some of the weights set to hold the dome, then one of the eight winches on the dome became inoperative,” the source said. “They attempted to discover what was wrong by using the ROV, and got it tangled in the anchor lines of the dome and it sank into the silt.”

Divers were then dispatched to the sea floor to try to recover the dome without damaging the high-tech umbilical that controls it, he said.

It was not clear how much damage the dome ultimately suffered, but it apparently was enough to prompt Shell to abandon its well-drilling plans for the current season.

One of my confidential sources at the test site that day reported to me:

I’ve got more information from a tugboat skipper who was there, but he doesn’t want me to print it. He’s the one, based on being able to listen to the encrypted radio chatter when they were all tangled up, that called it a “clusterfuck.”

He assured me that this crew isn’t ready for a water park, let alone the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas.

On October 10th, Sen. Mark Begich held a hearing in Anchorage:

The overflow crowd also heard specifics on what happened to a Shell oil spill response system damaged during testing.

With only weeks to go before Shell Alaska wraps up its first exploratory drilling offshore Alaska in two decades, key players told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that the work went well and Shell has done an exemplary job despite some glitches and setbacks.

When the hearing got to finding out what happened aboard the Arctic Challenger on September 16th, a strangely different story emerged on what happened in the accident:

The barge-based containment system, including a massive dome that would be lowered over an out-of-control well, is the first of its kind and was on fast track for completion, [Shell Oil Alaska Vice President Pete] Slaiby said. It only became part of Shell’s required oil spill response after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell and Superior Energy Services, the contractor that owns and will operate the 38-year-old retrofitted barge, investigated how the dome was damaged during testing Sept. 15 off the coast of Washington state.

“Our investigation determined that a faulty electrical connection associated with one of the valves caused the valve to open, which caused the rapid descent and ultimate damage to the dome,” Slaiby told Begich.

Safety tethers prevented the dome from hitting bottom, he said. The dome was nowhere near the side of the barge and didn’t bang against it or hit anything else, Slaiby told reporters during a break in the hearing.

“But buoyancy chambers were damaged,” he said.

During the rapid descent, the water pressure “deformed the side of the dome itself,” he said. Shell and Superior are working together to improve the technical aspects of the system as well as procedures.

“The design concept, however, is solid,” Slaiby said in the hearing.

The oil spill containment barge is the fourth line of defense, he said. Crews would first try to stop a blowout with drilling mud, then turn to a blowout preventer already in place, then a capping stack, a special blowout preventer like what eventually stopped the oil from flowing from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

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