Environmentalists call for Arctic drilling moratorium

Environmentalists on Thursday stepped up pressure on the Obama administration to halt Arctic oil exploration, citing the grounding of Shell’s Kulluk rig as fresh evidence that the work is too dangerous.

Although the Kulluk conical drilling rig plowed into rocks on the coast of Sitkalidak Island Monday night during a long trek across the stormy Gulf of Alaska — not while it was hunting for oil — conservationists say the episode highlights the difficulty of even routine operations in remote, icy waters.

“The risks of Arctic drilling extend beyond the Arctic itself all along the coastline,” said Chuck Clusen, director of National Parks and Alaska Projects for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “No matter how much (money) Shell has poured into Arctic drilling, . . . it cannot make the effort anything but a terrifying gamble.”

On Thursday, Shell, the Coast Guard, state officials and other partners were hoping to mount flights to the beached rig to continue assessing the its integrity and continue planning ways to pull the Kulluk from its rocky perch. A five-member salvage team got a brief peek below decks Wednesday, after a Coast Guard helicopter lowered them and an emergency tow package to the Kulluk.

Lois Epstein, director of The Wilderness Society’s Arctic Program, said both the Obama administration and Shell should rethink approved Arctic drilling programs, in light of the Kulluk grounding and a series of other problems that have plagued the company’s Alaska venture.

Last July, the Noble Discoverer slipped its anchor and went adrift near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Shell’s first-of-its-kind oil spill containment system was damaged during a drill last year. And in separate incidents in November, after finishing drilling in the Chukchi Sea, the Discoverer had a fire in its rig stack, suffered propulsion problems and was rapped for having pollution-control system deficiencies.

“This series of mishaps by Shell makes it crystal clear we are not ready to drill in the Arctic,” Clusen told reporters on a conference call. “We have lost all faith in Shell. If Shell, one of the most profitable companies on earth, can’t buy its way to safety, no one can.”

Shell officials stress that none of the recent setbacks involving the Kulluk and Discoverer involved drilling operations.

“It is possible to drill safely there, as our 2012 record shows,” said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh.

“The current situation with the Kulluk is a marine transit issue and one we take very seriously,” op de Weegh added. “We are determined to learn from these marine transport issues and implement those learnings to strengthen our maritime fleet operations, going forward.”

The NRDC and Wilderness Society are asking the Obama administration to “stand down” and block any bid by Shell to resume drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer. The groups said they also were imploring the Interior Department to cancel planned sales of drilling leases in the region and halt reviewing any drilling plans by ConocoPhillips and other companies. They also were insisting that federal regulators begin a fresh review of already approved oil spill response plans filed by Shell that they describe as unrealistic.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Oceana pleaded for an Arctic drilling timeout “until and unless companies show that they can operate safely.”

“Shell has shown again and gain that it is not prepared to operate in Alaskan waters,” said Susan Murray, deputy Pacific vice president for the group. “You have the opportunity now to take action to prevent the catastrophe that we have thus far avoided.”

While the Coast Guard has oversight of vessels crossing U.S. waters, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is responsible for vetting permits to drill in Arctic waters. It approved five such permits last year, though it precluded Shell from burrowing into underground zones that could contain oil and gas until its emergency response system had passed an inspection and was nearby. That did not happen before ice moved into the area last year, so Shell completed two “top holes” _ the initial part of wells it hopes to finish this summer.

“The administration understands that the Arctic environment presents unique challenges, and that’s why (Salazar) has repeatedly made clear that any approved drilling activities will be held to the highest safety and environmental standards,” said Blake Androff, a spokesman for the Interior Department. “The department will continue to carefully review permits for any activity, and all proposals must meet our rigorous standards.”

Androff added that federal inspectors would continue to be on board Arctic rigs around the clock during any drilling operations.

At the same time, environmental activists and offshore drilling foes began seeking more details about what, exactly, sent the Kulluk plummeting into the rocks south of Kodiak, Alaska, and the planning by Shell and federal regulators for dealing with any such disaster.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is pressing the Coast Guard and Shell to explain why they didn’t offload more diesel fuel from the Kulluk, which does not have its own propulsion engines, before the trip. About 140,000 gallons of low-sulfur diesel fuel are estimated to be carried in three fuel tanks inside the double-hulled drilling unit, which officials said were used for ballast and to operate cranes, winches and other equipment on the vessel.

Greenpeace separately filed a request asking for similar information, including records that would show how the Coast Guard and Shell planned for the Kulluk’s two-week trek across the Gulf of Alaska and how response decisions have been made since it ran aground.

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