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