Shell Oil’s ongoing problems in the Arctic raise serious questions as to whether the company can safely operate in the frozen north, where an oil spill could irreparably damage fragile ecosystems.
The latest slipup occurred during the final days of 2012, when the drilling rig Kulluk broke free from towropes and, after a days-long struggle, on New Year’s Eve ran aground on the uninhabited Sitkalidak Island—an Important Bird Area where more than 100,000 birds overwinter and 180,000 nest in the summer. The rig remained intact and doesn’t appear to have spilled any of its around 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel or 12,000 gallons of drilling fluids. It was subsequently towed to a bay in Kodiak Island.
In July, Shell’s other drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, became unmoored in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands and threatened to run aground. In September, in the Chukchi Sea, an advancing ice floe forced the rig to retreat to safer waters.
The company’s numerous Arctic blunders—including other instances of mismanagement—have spurred the government to launch an urgent review that could hinder—or halt—the company’s efforts to open up waters off of Alaska’s coast to oil exploration.
The Chuckchi and Beaufort seas and their shorelines support a wide array of wildlife, including walruses, seals, bowhead whales, polar bears, and enormous numbers of birds.
The company confirmed that it was moving the Kulluk during the last days of the year to avoid paying taxes in Alaska for the vessel in 2013.