Environmentalists spy coral near Shell Arctic drill site

Environmental activists are keeping the pressure on Shell as the oil company inches closer to launching exploratory drilling in Arctic waters north of Alaska.

Greenpeace activists and marine biologists conducting submarine research in the area have documented thick accumulations of soft coral in the Chukchi Sea near an area where Shell plans exploratory oil drilling.

Greenpeace scientists discovered the sea raspberry coral during a recent research submarine dive in the Arctic waters north of Alaska. They took samples and photos of the species, known as Gersemia rubiformis, during the research mission and published the images on their website.

The move is the latest bid by environmental advocates to keep a spotlight on Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, as well as the marine life that the activists say could be irrevocably damaged by an oil spill in the area. Greenpeace activists are using a 237-foot-long ice-class ship, the Esperanza, to follow Shell’s work from a distance, deploy submarines to look for marine life under water and use acoustic equipment to monitor how much sound is coming from the company’s planned oil drilling.

Environmentalists also have mounted a satirical pro-drilling billboard on Interstate 10, near Shell’s Houston headquarters, and staged protests at Shell filling stations around the globe.

If Greenpeace encroaches on Shell’s drilling rigs or support ships in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, it would run afoul of a federal injection sought by Shell and could be hit with hefty fines and potential jail time.

But Greenpeace activists say they are doing important baseline research to document conditions in the region before any new drilling begins, roughly two decades after the last oil wells were bored in the same waters.

Shell noted the existence of the coral and other so-called Benthic invertebrates in an environmental impact assessment the company assembled as part of its government-approved blueprint for Chukchi Sea oil drilling. And research cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes the soft, brain-like coral as “common” north of the Alaska peninsula.

According to Shell surveys around its Burger Prospect in the Chukchi Sea, the coral represented only about 4 percent of the epifaunal species the firm collected beginning in 2008. Instead, when researchers pulled samples from stations in the area, sea cucumbers, brittle stars and sea stars dominated the collections.

Greenpeace marine biologist John Hocevar’s described the coral as abundant on the Chukchi seafloor.

“We were surprised to discover large numbers of corals in the midst of Shell’s proposed drill site,” Hocevar said. “I was definitely not expecting corals to be one of the three most commonly seen species on our dives, along with brittle stars and baskets stars.”

The existence of the coral is not documented in publicly available versions of Interior Department’s broad environmental impact statement for Chukchi Sea oil leasing nor a government-produced environmental assessment focused specifically on Shell’s drilling plan.

A spokeswoman for the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the agency’s decisions about Shell’s proposed exploration “were based on years of comprehensive study and analyses of the potential effects of offshore activity on the environment, including seafloor habitats.”

“These environmental studies, which included the development of information regarding the presence of Arctic corals, were specifically considered in evaluating the footprint of Shell’s proposed activities,” said bureau spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman.

The agency has commissioned research on the Benthic invertebrates in the Chukchi Sea; for instance, in March, the bureau released a technical report completed by the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute that documented the results of a three-year, $2.9 million study of marine life in the Chukchi Sea. According to that study, some forms of soft coral are common in the Chukchi seabed.

ConocoPhillips and Shell Oil also have collaborated in conducting pre-drilling environmental studies of the benthic life in the area four years ago.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh described the sea raspberry coral as very common in the area and “well known to be patchy” — which could explain why some random sampling would turn up big amounts of the coral, while other samples contained relatively little of it.

Opinions differ on whether drilling jeopardizes the soft coral. Some previous research describes the coral as resilient.

“When impacted, they return within months,” op de Weegh said.

But Hocevar describes the coral as “slow growing, long lived and highly vulnerable to disturbance.”

Further, Hocevar said, “they provide habitat for fish and other marine life, often serving as nursery areas for larvae or juveniles.”

The Gersemia rubiformis coral is a soft coral, unlike the hard types many recreational snorkelers may be more accustomed to seeing. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the coral is located in waters worldwide, usually found attached to shells and stones.

Shell is preparing to drill several wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska this summer, if federal regulators sign off on all of the company’s plans. The Interior Department has already approved Shell’s broad exploration plans for both seas, and the company holds wildlife disturbance authorizations that are required for the work.

But the company must secure drilling permits for individual wells from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to rule on a request by Shell to waive some of the emissions limits in an air pollution permit governing the pollution from support vessels and its Discoverer drillship once it is anchored in the area.

Shell also is working with the American Bureau of Shipping and the Coast Guard on the classification and inspection of the Arctic Challenger barge that is set to hold key oil spill containment equipment in case of an emergency in the region. That barge is still being constructed in a Washington shipyard.