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Obama Administration Quietly Reopens Case That Could Criminalize Peer Review Process

8:52 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Dr. Charles Monnett, in the process of getting peer feedback on his observations that some Polar bears appeared to be dying in the Arctic Ocean, due to stress from long swims between dwindling ice packs, sent emails to scientific colleagues.  He was going through the peer review process, in order to publicize findings in a paper. That was in 2004, through 2006.  The paper was published in 2006.  Information from Monnett’s research found its way into Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

On July 18, 2011, Dr. Monnett was placed on administrative leave from his post at the BOEMRE.  On August 25, 2012, he was returned to work, but with considerably reduced responsibility.  Closely watched.

Today, his legal representatives, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, revealed that the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior quietly reopened their case against Monnett sometime between his reinstatement and December of 2012:

In late December, the IG first revealed that its nearly three-year fruitless pursuit of Dr. Charles Monnett, a senior scientist with the Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM), had been reopened although its final report was issued last September. The IG has not stated the reasons for the unusual action of reopening a closed case, except to say that it is awaiting BOEM’s response to unspecified new recommendations.

The new open status is slowing the ability of PEER to obtain documents relating to the controversial IG probe under the Freedom of Information Act. Under an appeal, however, PEER managed to obtain the basis for the IG seeking criminal referrals against Dr. Monnett after the IG initially refused to disclose the information. The four separate charges resemble the legal version of “everything but the kitchen sink” –

One rejected charge was false official statements in connection with the peer review process for the publication of a 2006 observational note by the journal Polar Ecology;

Another un-pursued charge was criminal conflict of interest in connection with the award of a joint research contract with the University of Alberta on polar bear transnational migrations; and

Twice, once at the beginning of the investigation and a second time at the end, the IG sought to have Dr. Monnett prosecuted for supposedly unauthorized emails he sent to other researchers in 2007-8. The second time, the IG maintained the emails amounted to theft of government property.

The 2007-2008 email distribution led to protests from Alaska Native and environmental organizations that Shell Oil was not being transparent in their statements and documents pertaining to proposed drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  One of the scientists Monnett had sent some of the emails to was University of Alaska professor Rick Steiner, who was already in Shell’s crosshairs for attending a conference organized by Bristol Bay area organizations, critical of Shell’s plans to drill in the world’s richest salmon return habitat.  Shell has since withdrawn the Bristol Bay plan.  Steiner was later hounded from his U of A job.

PEER executive director, Jeff Ruch, is concerned that the “theft of government property” charge may pertain, in the reopened investigation, to not only the 2007-2008 emails, that helped shut down Shell operations for almost four years, but to the 2005-2006 emails, which sought peer feedback for a scholarly paper:

This new information underlines how irresponsible and misguided the Inspector General has been in its attempt to ‘get’ a target while trampling over obvious truths.  Especially dangerous is this clumsy attempt to criminalize the academic peer review process. [emphasis added]

Firedoglake‘s coverage of the witch hunt against Shell opponent Dr. Charles Monnett.

Firedoglake‘s coverage of the hounding of Shell opponent Prof. Rick Steiner

After Kulluk Hull Damage Assessment, Shell Mum on Damage Extent – State of Alaska Could Care Less

12:43 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Kulluk aground Sitkalidak Island

The oil drilling rig Kulluk, which spectacularly went aground on Sitkalidak Island south of Kodiak late on New Years Eve, was salvaged on January 6th, and towed about 40 miles to Kiliuda Bay, where it has been anchored since. Salvage experts have thoroughly gone over the inside and outside of the rig over the intervening days.

The so-called Unified Command structure, which was enacted before the grounding, and peaked on January 6th at over 700 people, more than half of which were government or Alaska Native corporation employees, is still in place, though much reduced. There are about 250 people involved on Kodiak Island, a smaller team in Anchorage.

However, Shell Alaska appears to be calling the shots at this point, when it comes to letting people know anything about the extent of the damage the ungainly rig sustained during severe storm conditions, and while being knocked about upon a rocky coast for a week:

The operation is under the direction of unified command structure made up of the Shell, the Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Kodiak Island Borough. The unified command has acknowledged that the vessel remains upright, has not leaked fuel and has been examined by divers, but not much else.

“I know you’re looking for specific answers but we wanted to let you know that due to the fact that multiple entities are involved in the assessment of data, including Unified Command, Shell, Smit Salvage and Det Norske Veritas, Unified Command will not comment on the assessment until the report is finalized,” said spokeswoman Deb Sawyer by email in response to questions about the operation. She did not provide a timetable of when the report would be done.

Meanwhile, after the U.S. Coast Guard, other Federal agencies, the Alaska Department of Conservation, other Alaska state agencies, Native entities and other local governmental functions have spent millions from the public purse, it appears the State of Alaska, perhaps the most oil-friendly state in the country, could care less.

Marine ecosystem and oil spill expert Rick Steiner queried Gary Mendivil, an Environmental Program Specialist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Office of the Commissioner, about his concerns over the fragility of the damaged rig’s hull:

Under the auspices of the Alaska Public Records Act, I request a copy of all records, whether printed documents, still photographs, and/or video from the underwater ROVs or divers, pertaining to the inspection of the condition of the Kulluk as of this date.

Mendivil’s response was quick and brief:

Our response that no records exist is true for the entire department, including the Commissioner.

Steiner is concerned that the state DEC is a blank slate on this. He should be, as should we all.

He wrote to me earlier Friday:

The rig is anchored in state waters, had been hard aground for a week, has 150,000 gallons of fuel still on board, and has been extensively inspected, and that rests in the Unified Command, which state is part of ….

And this is the state government that asserts it will maintain very stringent oversight of Arctic offshore drilling?

I had a short talk with Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell early this afternoon, after a presentation we both had attended.  I didn’t push him on the Kulluk grounding, but should have.

I suspect the Unified Command will make an announcement on the hull and inner structure damage to the Kulluk soon.  But, given the millions of dollars, and risks to scores of lives Shell’s hubris and negligence have so far caused because of this ungainly contraption, it should not be allowed to proceed until their assessment has been vetted by the USCG and the Alaska DEC and has been made public.

Sen. Begich, U.S. House, Interior Department and USCG All to Investigate Shell Alaska and Kulluk Grounding

3:02 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Portrait of Mark Begich

Senator Mark Begich of Alaska announced an investigation into the grounding of the Kulluk.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D), the Department of the Interior and the United States Coast Guard all announced Tuesday that they will be investigating aspects of the New Years Eve grounding of Shell Alaska’s Arctic oil drilling rig, Kulluk, on an island off of Kodiak.

Last week, Rep. Ed Markey (D – Mass), ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, along with other House Democrats in the House Sustainable Energy and Environment coalition indicated they hope for a House probe:

The coalition is made up of 45 House Democrats.

“The recent grounding of Shell’s Kulluk oil rig amplifies the risks of drilling in the Arctic,” they said in a joint statement. “This is the latest in a series of alarming blunders, including the near-grounding of another of Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs, the 47-year-old Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor and the failure of its blowout containment dome, the Arctic Challenger, in lake-like conditions.”

The coalition believes these “serious incidents” warrant thorough investigation, the statement said.

We’ll see if Markey can get the GOP-controlled HCNR to formally investigate this.  I have my doubts. Alaska Rep. Don Young is a senior GOP member of the committee, and he will do everything he can to keep anything from getting in Shell’s way.  However, Markey, who has let it be known he is considering a run to take Sen. John Kerry’s place in the Senate, will push this hard.

The U.S. Coast Guard investigation of the Kulluk‘s grounding is inevitable.  The announcement today is no surprise:

The Coast Guard has ordered a marine casualty investigation of the Shell Oil-contracted drilling rig Kulluk’s Dec. 31 grounding on Sitkalidak Island, a day after it was safely towed to an anchorage about 30 miles away.

A Tuesday statement says the investigation, ordered by Coast Guard 17th District commander Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, will be led by a Coast Guard investigator. It will receive support and technical advice from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board.

“In accordance with statute, the formal investigation will probe every aspect of the incident, to include but not limited to the causes of the incident, whether there is evidence that any failure of material was involved or contributed to the incident or whether there is evidence of misconduct, inattention, negligence (or) willful violation of the law,” officials wrote.

We’ll get to hear the crew of the Kulluk and Aiviq testify.  Under oath.

Within the past hour, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it will conduct a review of Shell Alaska:

The Interior Department is launching a “high-level,” 60-day review of Shell’s troubled 2012 attempts to look for oil off Alaska’s northern coast after the company experienced a series of mishaps.

The review arrives a week after Shell’s Kulluk drillship ran aground en route back from the Arctic region, and as Interior is under pressure from green activists to block 2013 drilling off Alaska’s coast.

Sen. Begich issued a press release this morning, which links to the formal letter he has sent to Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil USA and Admiral Robert Papp, Commandant of the USCG.  Begich issued the notice in his capacity as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.  This is from his press release:

Read the rest of this entry →

List of Questions on Shell’s Alaska 2012 Arctic Drilling Fiasco Grows Longer by the Day

2:18 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Kulluk aground

Back on July 27th, when I first started covering aspects of Shell Alaska’s plans to begin offshore drilling off our coasts up here, I already had questions.  That day, I wrote, reminiscing about what I knew of the spill response barge Arctic Challenger back in 1982 :

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.

The next week I went to Bellingham harbor, where the barge was being outfitted with a new, untried piece of equipment.  Shell didn’t answer my calls for an appointment request, so I showed up at 7:45 am at the security office, and managed to get inside two layers of security before a gatekeeper decided I had the look of somebody who might be asking too many questions.  He was right.

Shell refused to let me photograph or even view the work being done on the Challenger and its containment dome apparatus.  Instead:

[The project director] 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.

Although Shell wasn’t ready to share their work with me, it proved impossible to hide either the vessel’s dismal history or its shortcomings from the public.  Longtime Alaska reporter, Alex De Marban, wrote in mid-August, that in 2007, while rusting away in Long Beach, California harbor, the Arctic Challenger attracted so many birds, it was temporarily declared a “bird sanctuary” for Caspian terns:

At one point, hundreds of Caspian terns, gulls, cormorants, pelicans, ravens, crows and even an owl turned the 300-foot barge into a giant’s bird nest, coating the deck with bird dung and other gunk. That was in California’s Long Beach Harbor in 2007, where the downtrodden vessel became a bit of a media celebrity as wildlife regulators raced to save the protected terns and their chicks.

De Marban didn’t have many questions in mid-August, but he noted that others did: Read the rest of this entry →

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 →

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?

Read the rest of this entry →

The Kulluk Unified Command HQ as an Indicator Shell Alaska Has Its Head Up Its Ass – Updated

1:40 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Unified Command for the Kulluk response

I’ve suspected since early August that Shell Alaska was more interested in style than substance, and that their chain of command didn’t know how to deal creatively with either disruption, or with questions about the quality of their work.  I also suspect others who have left their ship know this too.

It isn’t like this is unique to corporate cultures or to energy industry corporate cultures.  Loyalty is something I’ve sought from my employees when I had them.  But never at the expense of their being able to speak up about problems when they occur.

Shell Alaska, becoming desperate as people in its upper and inner workings saw their timeline charts becoming unrealistic, freaked out last summer.  I got a glimpse of it on August 7th, 2012,when I showed up at the Bellingham, Washington dock where the Arctic Challenger was being modified for its role in the 2012 Arctic drilling season:

[I] requested a tour of the project. [The project director] 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.

I’m such a malicious physical threat, right?  Never got the call, by the way.  Nobody from Shell Alaska has answered any of my several calls, emails or other queries.  Ever.

This week’s grounding of the Kulluk may have actually been inevitable.  A new, untried design, the  Aiviq, took at least one too many chances when deciding to not take shelter – there were no lack of good options – about a week ago, as weather reports rapidly worsened in the north Gulf of Alaska.

We don’t know yet what sorts of pressure the skipper of the tug might have been under as he pushed his tug into mounting sea, while towing an unwieldy pie dish the size of two football fields welded side-to-side, into waters notorious for messing with tugs and their tows.

Rick Steiner put it succinctly yesterday:

There is a lot to learn about this cascade of failures that put the Kulluk on the rocks.  The rig was not adequately equipped for heavy weather towing, they should have called the Alert sooner, and tried to shelter sooner. 

Clearly Shell should have thought through contingencies for a loss of tow in heavy weather, and they didn’t. The weather encountered is not extreme and unexpected in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter – it’s just winter. This doesn’t inspire confidence in their safety and contingency planning capability.

It does not.  And Steiner, a longtime critic of Shell Alaska, is not alone.

Retired University of Alaska Prof. Steiner has been looking at this from the viewpoint of tens of thousands of hours of maritime experience.  Retired University of Alaska Prof. Steve Aufrecht is looking at the grounding and response from the viewpoint of a highly regarded expert on public policy.  Aufrecht published two articles Wednesday that clearly show his concern about how the Unified Command is handling the grounding.

The first, Keeping Track of the Kulluk – SEACOR Owns The Communications System, looks at the online architecture and corporate connections of the Unified Command’s web presence.  Aufrecht isn’t as creeped out as me about the strange interconnections and conflicts of interest involved here, but he is concerned:

This feels a bit like Diebold running the voting machines.

I don’t think the industry that has caused the problem should be the one running the information system the public and the media have to use to get information about what’s going on.

I understand that government salary levels don’t allow them to compete with the private sector for the best and brightest computer folks.  But when they contract out for private companies to run the website for something like this, they should get a company that has no interest in the content of the website.  I suspect though that Shell and Noble suggested, and maybe are even paying for, the website.  But there’s no such thing as a free website.

In his next post on the Kulluk debacle, Aufrecht looks at the propaganda-PR aspects of how Shell Alaska is trying to spin this fiasco - Shell’s Kulluk Response: Look How Great We Are! 

Aufrecht tartly observes that Shell seems to be trying to portray the grounding of the Kulluk as some sort of victory for their hard-working, risk-taking team.  He proceeds to shred a Tuesday Shell press release:

Shell’s response is like being at the funeral and talking only about how nice the flowers look.

The gist of paragraph 1: We were successful!

The gist of paragraph 2: We did great under terrible conditions 

The gist of paragraph 3: Kulluk was a success and this is merely a learning experience so we can be more successful.

The gist of paragraph 4: This wasn’t about drilling and we’ve got the world’s best working on this. We’re confident!

Sadly, it is all worse than this.

There are now, according the Shell, over 600 people involved in this farce.  Nothing exemplifies its pathetically comic aspects better than this picture the Unified Command has posted on the flickr page they created today, showing an enormous number of people busying themselves with nuttiness at the Unified Command HQ in a pricey convention room at the Marriott Hotel, all wearing what appear to be either life jackets, or vests that mimic them:

Unified Command for the Kulluk response

Is there anything remotely resembling common sense buried somewhere in Shell Alaska’s Arctic drilling project?

Update – Thursday 11:00 am Alaska Time:

A story posted this morning at the Alaska Dispatch confirms that Shell was in a rush to get the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer out of Alaska before January 1st, to avoid millions of dollars in taxes up here:

A move by Shell to avoid millions in Alaska state taxes may have backfired when the oil rig Kulluk ran aground Monday on Kodiak Island. The rig initially went adrift while it was being towed to a shipyard and tax shelter in Seattle. Instead, the vessel found itself literally stuck inside Alaska at the start of the new year.

…..

A Shell spokesman last week confirmed an Unalaska elected official’s claim that the Dec. 21 departure of the Kulluk from Unalaska/Dutch Harbor involved taxation.

City councilor David Gregory said Shell would pay between $6 million and $7 million in state taxes if the Kulluk was still in Alaska on Jan. 1.

Shell’s Curtis Smith said in an email last week that the decision involved financial considerations. The rig had been moored in the Aleutian Islands port following several months on an oil exploration project in the Arctic Ocean.

“We are now planning to sail both vessels to the west coast for seasonal maintenance and inspections. Having said that, it’s fair to say that the current tax structure related to vessels of the type influenced the timing of our departure,” Smith said. “It would have cost Shell multiple millions to keep the rigs here,” he added, though he didn’t have an exact amount.

Gregory said the departure of the Kulluk took money away from local small businesses servicing the rig. He predicted the maritime mishap will prove very costly to the oil company.

“It will cost them more than that $6 million in taxes. Maybe they should have just stayed here,” Gregory said.

The Kulluk is still here, on the rocks. And the Noble Discover is all but impounded in Seward.
Read the rest of this entry →

Amidst Arctic Drilling Lies, Shell VP Tells Truth – “There’s no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills”

8:25 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

The crushed containment dome from Shell's Arctic Challenger

Two news articles came out on Thursday and Friday that should concern anyone worried about Shell Oil’s plans to drill for oil offshore in northern Alaska waters.

On Thursday, BBC published a feature article on the status of Shell’s Alaska drilling project, which just concluded what many consider to have been a disastrous 2012 season.  Here’s Shell’s Alaska Vice President, Pete Slaiby:

“There’s no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills, and no spill is OK. But will there be a spill large enough to impact people’s subsistence? My view is no, I don’t believe that would happen.”

On the other hand, he argues that oil extracted off the coast of Point Hope could make a big difference to America as a whole.

“It could mean a significant step in the journey to energy independence of the United States,” he says.

Sheesh!  Can one imagine back in 1989, BBC interviewing Exxon Valdez skipper, Joe Hazelwood, with him stating:

“There’s no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills, and no spill is OK. But will there be a spill large enough to impact people’s subsistence? My view is no, I don’t believe that would happen.”

On the other hand, he argues that oil transported in his tanker across Prince William Sound could make a big difference to America as a whole.

“It could mean a significant step in the journey to energy independence of the United States,” he says.

Or BBC interviewing BP CEO Tony Hayward in early 2010, with Haywood stating:

“There’s no sugar-coating this, I imagine there would be spills, and no spill is OK. But will there be a spill large enough to impact people’s subsistence? My view is no, I don’t believe that would happen.”

On the other hand, he argues that oil extracted off the coast of the American Gulf of Mexico states could make a big difference to America as a whole.

“It could mean a significant step in the journey to energy independence of the United States,” he says.

Actually, I CAN imagine those people saying that then.  Slaiby and company had hoped nobody would ask hard questions about this past summer’s abortive drilling attempts, particularly about the spectacular failure of a system they had touted as “state-of-the-art” on more than one occasion – the oil spill containment dome built to be deployed on the old icebreaking barge, Arctic Challenger.

Arctic Challenger 1982 color adj.

I’ve previously written seven articles about the Arctic Challenger for firedoglake, beginning on July 27th, the 30th anniversary of the day I had made the above drawing of the barge, as it slowly moved northward toward Alaska’s Arctic, being towed by the barge I was helping crew.  The last of those articles was about six weeks ago, after the conclusion of hearings in Anchorage, conducted by Alaska Sen. Mark Begich.  Between those dates, I visited the barge in Bellingham, hoping to look at the modifications being made, and at the containment dome apparatus, only to be denied access, and followed out of town by Shell-hired security police.  I wrote other followups on barge modification progress fiascos.

In that last article, I published the text of a Federal FOIA request that had been submitted to government agencies by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.  PEER hasn’t heard back yet, but today, Seattle’s KUOW Radio published a report on the Arctic Challenger fiasco that reveals that they had taken the same action as PEER, but have gotten information back.  Here is the central finding:

Read the rest of this entry →

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

Fukushima Radiation Spreads Worldwide and Into Japanese Ground Water – Canada to Begin Intensive Testing of Salmon & Caribou – When Will Alaska and the U.S. Do the Same?

12:33 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

 

"Welding Fishheads in AK - Redo" 2003

"Welding Fishheads in AK - Redo" 2003 by linleystorm on flickr

[cross-posted from Progressive Alaska - hence the Alaska-centric viewpoint of some parts]

 

I. CBC reports:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency plans to start testing fish off the coast of British Columbia for the presence of radiation stemming from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan earlier this year.

The agency has not yet released any specific details on the testing program, but did say it expects the test results to be well below Health Canada’s actionable levels for radiation.

Fisheries activist Alexandra Morton with the Raincoast Research Society says she supports the testing, but calls the announcement a political move. Morton says millions of sockeye have started returning to the Fraser River and the fishing season is already well underway.

Salmon are a particular concern to Morton and others because their wide-ranging migration patterns can take them right across the Pacific Ocean to the coast of Japan.

British Columbia fisheries activists are concerned that the timing of the announcment is a political ploy to draw attention away from the beginning of hearings into the cause of the Fraser River Sockeye salmon run crash:

“If they were actually concerned about the health of people and the fish, they would have started this actually at the beginning of the commercial openings. But to release this two days before the disease hearings at the Cohen inquiry, to me it’s a political statement, it’s a political effort to appear responsible,” [Morton] said.

The Cohen Commission hearings into the collapse of the 2009 Fraser River sockeye salmon run resumed in Vancouver earlier this week.

Morton also wants the CFIA to test farmed salmon, because she says trace amounts of radiation were detected in seaweed on the B.C. coast.

The Cohen Inquiry may be of interest to Alaskans. It is investigating more than one hypothesis about why the Fraser River Sockeye run collapsed rapidly, beginning in 1993, through 2009.  Alexandra Morton writes: Read the rest of this entry →