The U.S. is set to become the world’s top oil producer by 2020, and new technologies in offshore oil drilling have been a significant factor in making that happen. This hasn’t come without devastating consequences like the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, so when Royal Dutch Shell set its sights on offshore drilling in the unforgiving Arctic coast, environmentalists were concerned that this was another ecological disaster waiting to happen. Ironically, Shell’s Arctic debacles have made the environmental community’s case better than they could ever make themselves.
Hubris and greed trumped safety and common sense. For years, news of global warming’s impact on melting Arctic sea ice started making the fantasy of drilling in places ships could never reach before into a feasible opportunity. By December 2011, Shell had a bold $4.5 billion plan to start offshore oil drilling in such an extreme environment. They were set on making the dream a reality. The Obama administration approved their plans, and critics were told that Shell was the best in the business so nothing would go wrong.
Here’s apparently what the “best in the business” had to offer in 2012:
1) An oil spill containment system failed its oversight test;
2) Shell’s rigs have violated the air pollution control limitations the company had been approved for;
3) Shell’s drilling rig "Kulluk" broke free from its tow vessels and ran aground nearly spilling the 150,000 gallons of fuel on board.
The Kulluk fiasco only got worse when an investigation by Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) revealed that the reason Shell had been in such a hurry to tow the drill into international waters during the two weeks prior to January 1st was because they were trying to avoid paying $6 million in government taxes. Shell had originally said they were doing it because the weather forecast promised an ideal window for them to make the move safely. Not only were they lying, but the forecast actually predicted the weather was going to make the venture risky.
Since then, the Alaskan government and the Coast Guard have been working nonstop to resolve the Kulluk mess. So not only did Shell try to cheat taxpayers, now taxpayers are being charged to cleanup their mess.
In response to all of this, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has opened an expedited review of Shell’s Arctic drilling plans to be completed in March. Arctic drilling critics may be excited to learn that the outcome of the review could result in Shell being forced to scale back or completely halt their program. However, in the same press release announcing the review, Salazar reaffirmed the administration’s openness to future offshore Arctic drilling as part of Obama's “all of the above” energy policy approach.
Shell’s Arctic ambitions have been nothing short of irresponsible, and it’s a minor miracle that the news on January 1st did not include another Arctic oil spill. They proved that even the "best in the business" still lacks the skill, equipment, and expertise necessary to drill in the Arctic safely and efficiently. But in light of everything that has happened, the only thing more foolish would be for the Obama administration to turn a blind eye to these blatant problems and allow Shell’s Arctic drilling plans to continue.