Environmentalists are using the recent accident involving Shell Oil’s Kulluk drilling rig to call for the Obama administration to halt all drilling in the Arctic.
Shell, which has invested about $5 billion in the project so far, managed to get permission to drill and began operations in 2012. Now it may have to start over after the rig, which was being towed across stormy seas in the Gulf of Alaska, ran aground on an uninhabited island near Kodiak City.
It’s the latest in a series of mishaps that have included propulsion problems and a fire on the drillship Noble Discoverer and damage to Shell’s first-of-its-kind oil spill containment system during a deployment drill.
Even though none of the incidents involve drilling operations, it still gives fuel to critics who argue the problems underscore the potential dangers when oil production begins.
“There’s just a greater sensitivity to anything like this since the Deepwater Horizon,” said Larry McKinney, an expert in risk assessment and executive director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi.
Shell is drilling in one of the most inhospitable offshore environments on earth, which creates two separate kinds of risk, McKinney said. “One is the actual drilling in those climates and the narrow window you have in getting it done,” he said. “The other is getting to and from.”
Fortunately for Shell, nothing that’s happened so far involves a release of oil, but the company can’t afford any more mistakes, even the logistical kind.
“The real analysis of how well they do is how they handle the accident now and recover from it,” McKinney said.
While it’s predictable that environmentalists would use the accident to raise new concerns about the impact of offshore drilling in the Arctic, it also belies the the longstanding opposition of many environmental groups to other alternatives in Alaska. Part of the reason the offshore program in the Arctic moved forward is because environmentalists fought drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge, where exploration would have been far less risky.