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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:

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Alaska Blog and Media Coverage of the Kulluk Grounding – Updated

4:12 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Kulluk aground

A number of Alaska bloggers have been making efforts to inform their regular readers and others drawn toward the news story of the grounding of and salvage efforts toward the Shell Alaska drilling rig, Kulluk.

In alphabetical order:

Just a Girl from Homer:  Shannyn Moore posts most of her essays first at the Anchorage Daily News, in her weekly op-ed, then at The Mudflats. (see below)

Progressive Alaska:  I’ve been writing articles at PA and at Firedoglake on aspects of Shell’s Arctic Drilling plans since last summer.  Since the Kulluk debacle began unfolding on December, I’ve posted a dozen articles here.  They are easy to find at the bottom right hand border of the blog, as they have been the only articles posted here since December 30th.  Most of those articles were cross-posted at the national progressive blog, Firedoglake.  And some of the Firedoglake articles have not been cross-posted here.

Of those, the most important was probably the one I wrote last night, List of Questions on Shell’s Alaska 2012 Arctic Drilling Fiasco Grows Longer by the Day.  I’m going to use some of that article as the basis for another one at PA, perhaps later today.

Of the articles I’ve posted at both places, the one that seems to have drawn the most attention was my interview with Alaska marine environmental icon, retired University of Alaska Prof. Rick Steiner.  You can read it here.

Because of my background, mostly in the distant past, working at sea in Alaska, on small and large fishing boats, as a charter boat operator, and as a deckhand on oceangoing tugs, including towing one of Shell’s key components of their drilling scheme – the Arctic Challenger – from Seattle to Barrow, and having participated in several salvage operations, I’m able to offer a little more to this subject than some might.

The Immoral Minority:  Jesse Griffin has posted three articles on the grounding.  They can be found and followed at IM under the tag, Shell Oil.

The Mudflats:  This high traffic blog has posted articles by both Jeanne Devon and Shannyn Moore.  Beginning December 31st, The Mudflats has offered two articles by Devon, one by Ryan Marquis,  from I Eat Gravel, one by Thomas Dewar, and an op-ed by Moore.  Four can be found under the tag Shell Oil.  Moore’s op-ed, which is a Must Read, can be found at this link.

Moore’s op-ed raises an interesting point that I don’t think anyone else had yet brought forth:

The 1990 Oil Pollution Act has a limited liability clause. It limits the amount non-tanker vessels can be forced to pay in the event of an accident. So, after Shell has incurred $28 million in expenses, it may be able to invoke its liability limit.

I quoted Moore in my Firedoglake essay on questions.  The questions that the limited liability clause bring to mind immediately are along the line of “how is it determined who has spent what?” and “how soon will we be able to corner Sens. Begich and – especially – Sen. Lisa Murkowski on this?”

Murkowski’s views are important, as she is a key figure in why this liability limit is so absurdly and unrealistically low.  And she is also a major recipient of political contributions from the builder of the vessel most responsible for this debacle, the Aiviq.

Like me, Moore has a maritime background in her past.   With her network of contacts that rivals the best investigative reporters in Alaska, as was illustrated in her breaking of the strange hiring of “Judge” Paul Pozonsky, Moore will probably have a lot more to add to the Kulluk debacle.

What Do I Know?  Once again, Steve Aufrecht has provided several fresh views of the response to the Kulluk debacle, from his viewpoint as a distinguished professor of public administration.  Steve has written seven articles on this, beginning on January 2nd.  His articles are important enough to be listed here by their individual titles, which are intriguing, as well as inviting: 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?

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