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Shell Oil’s Arctic Challenger Containment Dome Fails in Perfect Weather – 2012 Drilling for Oil Called Off

10:53 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Arctic Challenger being towed close by a Foss Tug - 09/16/2012

Early Monday morning, Shell Oil announced that its plan of drilling all the way into oil, inside the crust of the bottom of the Arctic Ocean off the shores of Alaska, were crushed.  Their own technology, the vaunted containment dome, said to incorporate all the lessons learned from capping the Deepwater Horizon spill, was severely damaged in perfect late summer weather, while being tested on Puget Sound:

Shell is giving up for the year on drilling for oil in Arctic waters off Alaska after another setback to its troubled oil spill containment barge.

The company announced the decision Monday after testing of the Arctic Challenger, the oil spill containment barge the company has been unable to get ready and certified to support its Arctic Alaska exploration. Shell said that, while it will abandon its effort to drill into oil-bearing zones this year, it will drill “top holes” to get ready for next year.

“During a final test, the containment dome aboard the Arctic Challenger barge was damaged. It is clear that some days will be required to repair and fully assess dome readiness,” the company said in a written statement.

Environmental activists from Greenpeace, and being represented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, have been pushing for the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to conduct more rigorous tests on the equipment Shell has vaunted as being the best in the world for winter conditions in the Arctic.  That the key spill containment feature failed in lake-like conditions near Bellingham Bay on Puget Sound is an indicator that the concerns of activists such as ex-Prof. Rick Steiner (hounded from his post at the University of Alaska by the Bush and Obama administrations, at the behest of Shell), and Subhankar Banerjee (who was a guest Sunday at firedoglake’s Book Salon) have legitimacy, and that Shell may be setting us up for as bad a record in the Arctic as they have on the Niger Delta.

I’ve been concerned about the package represented by the Arctic Challenger since I found out in late July that Shell was refitting the barge I had worked exactly thirty years ago into a role I knew it was not suited for:

Although the Arctic Challenger was not needed as an icebreaker in 1982, it had been tried in that role earlier, and was found to be poorly designed.  It didn’t draw a lot of water – 4.1 feet empty – so, after having been broken by the bows,  ice would creep along underneath the hull and ultimately foul the props and rudders of the propelling tugs.  Not good when you’re 3,000 miles from Seattle.

Crew members of towing tugs had been injured over the five years since the barge’s completion, and it was not considered to be a “good luck” barge in fleet scuttlebutt. It never really found a niche after the Sealifts were over.  It languished, being shuttled from Seattle to the Gulf of Mexico to Coos Bay, Oregon, where it stayed for a long time.

On August 8th, I attempted to take a close look at the work being done in Bellingham Bay on the Arctic Challenger.  I was thwarted and followed by Shell rent-a-cops out of town:

I’m on my way back from Bellingham.  I visited the Port of Bellingham Dock this morning, where the barge Arctic Challenger is being modified by contractors for Shell Oil, to be used as their oil spill containment vessel for offshore drilling operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

I managed to get through two levels of security, being escorted the entire time.  At the third level, as I was explaining I hoped to get definitive information on the nature and extent of the stern modifications, bells and whistles started going off in the heads of the contractor’s people at hand.  I was sequestered away in the office of a fairly anal firewall type guy, until several security people and what appeared to be the project manager came in.

I was told the stern notch is being decked over and compartmentalized permanently.  It will never be pushed again as an icebreaker. Instead, he stated, an icebreaking tug, similar to the Swedish tug Tor Viking II, will be assigned to the Arctic Challenger from the time it leaves Puget Sound until its duties in the Arctic are over.  He stated that, summer or winter, when the vessel is deployed in the drilling areas, it will not be moored or anchored, but will be moving or drifting.

I thanked him for the best information anyone has yet given me, and requested a tour of the project.  He flatly told me “No,” and I was not allowed to take any photographs of the vessel.  He assured me that Shell Oil will be contacting me soon with more information.

The ambience of the work place there reminded me very much of projects in the past where I have worked that are seriously behind schedule and nervous of potential outcomes.

I was followed by private police until I left Bellingham.

Bad luck barge? A project long nervous about potential outcomes?  Incapable of passing dumbed down tests in flat calm weather?  Is this what we will have next year, after Shell cobbles together something that can somehow get certified as adequate?

I hope not!

Look at the image at the top, of the barge, being towed into Bellingham Bay.  It is supposed to have a crew of scores of people, when deployed.  Would you like to be on that thing in an 80-knot blow anywhere, let alone the Arctic Ocean?

Meanwhile, Shell hopes to continue drilling into the crust, to a distance short of where the oil is supposed to be:

Shell is required to finish any drilling operations in advance of the arrival of sea ice that could pose a problem for containing spills. The company had hoped for an extension of its Sept. 24 deadline for drilling in the Chukchi Sea. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he wouldn’t consider the request until the spill containment barge was ready and certified.

Shell is now abandoning for this year the effort to drill into oil-bearing zones. But the company plans to drill as many “top holes” as possible this drilling season in hopes of making progress toward next year.

“The top portion of the wells drilled in the days and weeks ahead will be safely capped and temporarily abandoned this year, in accordance with regulatory requirements,” the company said in its written statement.

Shell has had problems with even such preliminary drilling.

The company last week had to halt the effort the day after it began when sea ice started moving toward the drill ship.

Shell said the drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, is expected to resume its position in the Chukchi Sea and start work again in the coming days. Shell said it also plans to start operations in the Beaufort Sea soon following the fall Inupiat whaling season.

image:  The Arctic Challenger, being towed to its berth in Bellingham Bay, by a Tug (possibly the Garth Foss), after the failure of its spill containment system in a test on Puget Sound. Photo by Todd Guiton, published by the Bellingham Herald

At Dr. Monnett’s “Crackpot Probe” Yesterday, Obama Administration Witch Hunters Show Up Their Own Lies

2:31 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Polar Bear

On Tuesday, the Obama administration’s inquisition against a leading Arctic scientist continued.

Back on July 19th, one of the country’s foremost experts on Arctic and Alaska habitats, Charles Monett, PhD, was suspended from his job as a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM), the successor agency to the discredited Minerals Management Services.  Here’s how Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) described his situation in a July 28th press release:

Dr. Charles Monnett, PhD, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM), coordinates a significant portion of all BOEM extramural research and a majority of BOEM research on Arctic wildlife and ecology.  The Interior Inspector General (IG) is apparently investigating a 2006 note authored by Dr. Monnett and a colleague published in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology which reported sightings of drowned polar bears in open waters following a storm.  This seven-page paper, which had undergone internal peer review, management review and outside peer review coordinated by journal editors, galvanized scientific and public appreciation for the profound effects that climate change may already be having in the Arctic.

Although the IG probe has been going on for months, Dr. Monnett was suddenly suspended on July 18, 2011, due to the IG’s “on-going inquiry.”  He has not been informed of any specific charge or question relating to the scientific integrity of his work, nor is it clear why the IG has mounted a multi-month investigation of a five-year-old journal article.  IG interview transcripts do reveal, however, that –

  • The probe is being conducted by criminal investigators with no scientific training or background, who, based upon their questions, have little grasp of the scientific issues they are investigating;
  • They have rifled through all of Dr. Monnett’s e-mails and seized his papers and equipment, impeding his ability to work even before he was ordered to stay home; and
  • The investigators are seeking a link to former Vice President Al Gore, who referenced the polar bear paper in his book and movie, An Inconvenient Truth.

“Ever since this paper was published, Dr. Monnett has been subjected to escalating official harassment, culminating in his recent virtual house arrest,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the huge economic stakes for oil companies seeking to open Arctic waters in suppressing scientific research.

The next day, reacting to the PEER release, the Obama administration’s Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Michael R. Bromwich, issued a written denial regarding the focus of the investigation:

We are limited in what we can say about a pending investigation, but I can assure you that the decision had nothing to do with his scientific work, or anything relating to a five-year old journal article, as advocacy groups and the news media have incorrectly speculated. Nor is this a “witch hunt” to suppress the work of our many scientists and discourage them from speaking the truth. Quite the contrary. In this case, it was the result of new information on a separate subject brought to our attention very recently.

That same day,  BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz sent an email to the Alaska Dispatch, which said little and much, at the same time:

Although I cannot speak further regarding the Office of the Inspector General’s investigation, I feel it’s important to correct the inaccurate narrative that has been given to you (and is reported in your most recent article). This additional piece can only be attributed to a “source familiar with the administrative action,” given the nature of the ongoing investigation. I do not anticipate being able to further communicate on this ongoing issue, but will keep your contact info in case anything changes:

The agency placed Mr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong.

In the meantime, the national environmental organizations, Greenpeace US and the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, John Holdren, questioning the methods and focus of the investigation of Monnett.

On August 8th, Sen. James Imhofe, a relentless critic of science and its active practitioners, insinuated himself into the matter:

Separately Tuesday, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., wrote the acting director of the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office, seeking clarification on the purpose of the investigation into Monnett.

Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said Monnett’s work has been cited by witnesses before his committee and provided “the foundation” for the government’s decision in 2008 to list the bear as a threatened species, the first with its survival at risk due to global warming.

“As a result, critical habitat for the polar bear was designated, which added additional layers of onerous regulations to oil and gas development in 187,000 square miles of land in Alaska,” he said, adding that accusations against Monnett’s work “could be serious and have far reaching consequences.”

On Tuesday, Dr. Monnett was questioned for three hours.  Although the Interior IG and other government sources had denied in early August that the focus is either on Monnett’s peer-reviewed 2006 paper, or on how the University of Alberta contract was reviewed or let, that seemed to be the focus of the questions directed at the scientist:

Today’s interview between the Interior Department Office of Inspector General (IG) and a suspended Arctic scientist reveals that his 2006 peer-reviewed journal article on drowned polar bears remains the focus of the inquiry, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).   A new allegation surfaced that one of Interior’s top Arctic scientists, Dr. Charles Monnett, improperly steered a polar bear study to the University of Alberta, even though his agency had already approved it as a sole source contract.

The multi-month IG investigation is still ongoing but today’s interview with Dr. Monnett showed –

  • The IG is still focused on the scientific merit of a seven-page note authored by Dr. Monnett and a colleague published in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology in 2006 which reported sightings of drowned polar bears in open waters following a storm;
  • The IG had questions about Dr. Monnett’s role during procurement of a research study titled “Populations and Sources of Recruitment in Polar Bears” conducted by the Canadian University of Alberta but Dr. Monnett acted under the direction of agency contracting and procurement staff.  When pressed, the IG refused to answer how these transactions justified an unsuccessful referral to the Justice Department for prosecution; and
  • The IG took credit for prompting  the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM, the Interior unit where Dr. Monnett works) to issue a stop work order on the University of Alberta study but that stop work order was rescinded by the agency two weeks later and the study is ongoing.

PEER Executive Director, Jeff Ruch, (PEER is representing  Dr. Monnett) stated:

With each interview, it becomes more outrageous that government funds are being spent on this crackpot probe while paying Dr. Monnett’s salary to sit at home.  The [University of Alberta] study is a prime example of cost effective science in the public interest.  It was sole source to the Canadians because the Canadians were paying half the cost and were already doing much of the research.

It has also emerged that the government’s attention to the U of A contract is misdirected, as the contract was discussed long before the Polar bear sighting and paper had happened (more on this later).  At this time, the hold on the U of A contract has been lifted.

So far, the president’s inquisitors are not answering questions directed toward them about yesterday’s interrogation:

BOEMRE officials declined comment on Tuesday.

and:

A bureau spokeswoman declined comment.

Some, including this writer, have speculated that the attention brought down on Dr. Monnett is directly related to the Obama administration’s campaign to open the Arctic coast off Alaska to oil drilling, particularly by Shell, which has been granted exploratory permits since Monnett’s case came to public attention. If that is the case, it would not be the first time Dr. Monnett’s work has been the target of an oil giant.  Over 20 years ago, Exxon attacked him in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill:

Half the otters rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil spill died after they were released, suggesting the whole project was a bad idea, according to a study to be released at an Anchorage symposium this week.

An abstract of a paper by Charles Monnett and others studying the spill for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says only 23 of 45 otters implanted with radio devices are known to be alive. The others are missing or confirmed dead. One radio broke.

Missing otters are almost certainly dead because the ottertracking program is very reliable, Monnett said last month. The death rate is far more than would normally be expected.

“These data suggest that, despite the tremendous amount of money and energy that was directed toward the treatment and care of these animals, many or all of the sea otters that were released from the (rehabilitation) centers were not “rehabilitated,’ ” Monnett wrote in the abstract.

“We recommend that future policies focus on preventing otters from becoming oiled, rather than attempting to treat them after oiling has occurred,” the abstract said.

But Randall Davis, an Exxon-hired scientist who ran the otter rescue, said Monnett is wrong to assume missing otters are dead. He said about half Monnett’s otters counted as dead are only missing.

Also, Davis said the results from the radio tag study may not reflect the fate of all the otters released. He said the surgery of implanting the transmitters may have contributed to their demise.

But Monnett said his team of five workers has logged 1,000 hours in aircraft looking for the missing otters from Sitka to Homer. He assumes the otters are dead and drifted to sea or sank. The radios don’t transmit when covered with only 2 inches of salt water.

Monnett’s conclusion, “we recommend that future policies focus on preventing otters from becoming oiled, rather than attempting to treat them after oiling has occurred,” based on prevention of oil spills, rather than mitigating their negative impact, goes counter to speeding up Shell’s permitting process.

This week, Alaska saw Interior Secretary Salazar here, to announce big Arctic development plans:

Salazar joined Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed for a meeting with Alaska business people and said the president’s feeling toward Arctic offshore drilling is “Let’s take a look at what’s up there and see what it is we can develop.”

But any Arctic oil development must be done carefully, he said. Salazar said the Arctic lacks needed infrastructure for responding to potential offshore oil spills and cited painful lessons from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

“Not the mightiest companies with multibillion-dollar pockets were able to do what needed to be done in a timely basis, and the representations of preparation simply turned out not to be true from the oil companies that had a legal obligation to shut down that kind of an oil spill. …,” Salazar told Alaska reporters. “When you look at the Arctic itself, we recognize that there are different realities — the ocean is a much shallower ocean, conditions are very different than we had in the Gulf of Mexico. (But) there are challenges that are unique to the Arctic.”

Salazar said a step toward a solution is “having an agency within the United States government and Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Regulation, that can in fact do its job.”

On July 13th, Obama signed an executive order to “create a new federal working group tasked with having agencies better coordinate Alaska oil and gas permitting and other regulatory oversight. The White House said the working group, which is overseen by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, is designed to simplify oil and gas decision-making in Alaska by bringing together federal agencies to collaborate as they evaluate permits and environmental reviews.”

Six days later, Dr. Monnett was suspended.

The only Alaska Natives Salazar has been scheduled to meet here seem to be proponents of “Drill, Baby Drill!!”  Native groups have sided with Greenpeace US and the Center for Biological Diversity in their attempt to obtain correspondence between Shell and BOEMRE, or other government agencies, through the Freedom of Information Act.  At Tuesday’s press availability with Salazar and Sen. Begich, the question of the investigation of Dr. Charles Monnett does not appear to have been breached.

How convenient.  The reporters seem to be keeping their heads down.  Now if only those pesky scientists would learn those same traits.

With Obama’s Giordano Bruno-ization of Dr. Charles Monnett in Alaska, We See the Merging of the War on Science and the War on Whistleblowers

11:54 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Giordano Bruno by Jastrow

Two more organizations, neither from Alaska, have joined Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in search of more transparency in the Obama administration’s pursuit of Anchorage-based Polar bear expert, Dr. Charles Monnett.  Greenpeace US and the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter on Thursday to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and White House Office of Science & Technology Policy Director, Dr. John Holdren, raising their grave concerns that Dr. Monnett is being pursued as part of a political agenda.  They have also filed Freedom of Information Act requests in the matter, according to a Friday article by Jill Burke, in the Alaska Dispatch:

The groups are using the Freedom of Information Act to look into whether any correspondence exists between BOEMRE and Shell regarding Monnett or his research.

Some have speculated that Dr. Monnett is being sidelined and hounded as a warning to others to keep their heads down, as the Obama administration prepares the way to open the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to oil development.  As if on cue, late Thursday this was announced:

Shell cleared a major hurdle Thursday in its effort to begin a two-year drilling program in the Arctic Ocean next summer, receiving a conditional exploration permit from the federal agency that oversees offshore oil development.

The company said it was buoyed by the morning announcement from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, just as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was preparing for an Alaska visit next week at the invitation of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

That congressional tour, which will also include Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, will focus on energy issues.

The exploration permit covers an overall program that would drill four wells over two years in Camden Bay of the Beaufort Sea, due north of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The letter from Greenpeace US and the Center for Biological Diversity raises the spectre of Obama’s deepening and all but relentless pursuit of whistleblowers, which has been quite well documented, particularly by Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald, and The New Yorker‘s Jane Meyer.  Here’s Greewald, writing about Mayer’s most recent revelations:

Thomas Drake is a hero who deserves a Medal of Freedom Honor.  Instead, the Obama administration seeks to imprison him for decades while steadfastly protecting from prosecution — or judicial review of any kind — the high-level government officials who systematically broke the law.  Put another way — from the last paragraph of Mayer’s article:

Mark Klein, the former A.T. & T. employee who exposed the telecom-company wiretaps, is also dismayed by the Drake case. “I think it’s outrageous,” he says. “The Bush people have been let off. The telecom companies got immunity. The only people Obama has prosecuted are the whistle-blowers.”

And that’s to say nothing of the full-scale immunity also given thus far to Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Merrill, and the mortgage fraudsters who have essentially stolen people’s homes.  About what motivates Obama’s conduct — his virtually complete reversal from the campaign pledges — Drake offers this speculation:

“I actually had hopes for Obama,” he said.  He had not only expected the President to roll back the prosecutions launched by the Bush Administration; he had thought that Bush Administration officials would be investigated for overstepping the law in the “war on terror.”

But power is incredibly destructive,” Drake said. “It’s a weird, pathological thing. I also think the intelligence community coöpted Obama, because he’s rather naïve about national security. He’s accepted the fear and secrecy. We’re in a scary space in this country.”

On Twitter this morning, The American Prospect‘s Adam Serwer said of the New Yorker article:  ”Jane Mayer does to warrantless wiretapping what she did to torture.”  That’s true, but one could just as accurately say that Mayer does to the Obama administration what she did to the Bush administration:  expose its most rotted attributes.

Here is the Greenpeace-Center for Biological Diversity letter in its entirety (original is PDF – posted with permission):

August 4, 2011

Mr. Ken Salazar Secretary of the Interior
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240

Dr. John P. Holdren, Director Office of Science & Technology Policy
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Secretary Salazar and Dr. Holdren,

The protection of scientific independence and integrity is crucial to the creation of sound national policy, especially with respect to environmental and natural resource issues. We therefore fully support the spirit and letter of the President’s Executive Order regarding scientific integrity, and it is with this memorandum in mind that we write you about the recent suspension of a senior scientist at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Dr. Charles Monnett.

Dr. Monnett is responsible for undertaking and coordinating a broad slate of research into the distribution of marine mammals, including polar bears. This crucial long-term research has been approved by MMS/BOEMRE in part to produce baseline data against which to judge the potential impacts of proposed oil drilling in the waters off Alaska.

Prior to being placed on administrative leave, Dr. Monnett was subjected to an interrogation by criminal investigators from the Department of Interior Inspector General (IG) relating to his observations of drowned polar bears and the publication of those observations in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Based on the transcript of that interview, it appears that Dr. Monnett is himself being subjected to precisely the type of political interference in his work that the Executive Order and scientific integrity policy are designed to prevent. This apparent interference is originating not only from the IG, which has sent agents with no scientific training to ask decidedly unscientific questions about bizarre allegations relating to the polar bear paper, but also, as it emerged during the interview, from BOEMRE managers themselves.

Following clear evidence of misconduct within the BOEMRE’s predecessor agency, the Minerals Management Service, it was hoped that this reorganized agency, under Michael Bromwich’s leadership, would reform its working practices and usher in a new era of respect for independent scientific research. However, this incident indicates that the agency remains rife with problems and seems determined to restrict scientists from engaging in or disseminating research that provides critical information on the potential impacts of oil drilling in a rapidly changing Arctic.

This makes us question whether Mr. Bromwich, the agency and more broadly the Department of Interior are able to uphold the tenets of the Presidential Executive Order on scientific integrity or indeed the DOI’s own Science Integrity Policy, issued in September 2010.

We are gravely concerned by the allegations of political interference with Dr. Monnett’s work and other scientific research at BOEMRE, as well as by the conduct of the investigation against Dr. Monnett. This incident will chill other agency scientists’ ability to carry out and communicate their research.

We thus request your assurance that these critically important issues will receive an immediate, full, and open review by both the Department of Interior and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

We look forward to your response and thoughts on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Kert Davies Research Director
Greenpeace US
702 H St NW
Washington D.C. 20001

Kassie Siegel Senior Counsel
Climate Law Institute Director
Center for Biological Diversity
P.O. Box 549
Joshua Tree, CA 92252

Although their concerns center on lack of implementation of newly announced reforms in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which is the successor of the totally discredited similar office in the now-defunct Minerals Management Service, and of possible “political interference” in scientific work, those of us familiar with the patterns exhibited previously by Obama can probably read much between the very carefully written lines of the joint request.

Who would have thought that Obama could make the fundamentalist Bush’s war on science seem so pale in comparison?

[Editor's note: The original photograph, Giordano Bruno (and friend) by Fernando W, was replaced due to copyright restrictions.]