On Sunday morning Shell began a new phase in its latest attempt to quench the world's appetite for plentiful and cheap oil. The company's drill-ship, 'The Noble Discoverer', began the cutting of an eight and a half inch 'pilot hole' into the seabed off Alaska in its first step towards reaching an oil reservoir 1000 feet down. The race to the Arctic may be in its last lap.
Looming large over Shell's foray into the icy cold water's of the Arctic region is the memory of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That spill, which released almost 5 billion barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 men, occurred in what National Geographic describe as 'near perfect' conditions for containment. Not only was the sea warm, and chemical dispersants therefore relatively effective, but the infrastructure nearby was advanced. Within 500 miles of the deepwater blowout there were hundreds of airports, 30 coastguard facilities, dozens of seaports and the infrastructure to cope with thousands of workers who needed to be brought in to help out.
In comparison the area around Shell's site in the Chukchi Sea is one of the most isolated on earth. The nearest town, Barrow, which has a population of 4000, has no proper port facilities so all help would have to be flown in. It's no surprise that local coastguard, Captain Gregory Sanial, said that the thought of a spill in the region "Keeps me up at night thinking about things like how do I get equipment and personnel there?"
By contrast Shell was more relaxed when asked about the lack of post-spill infrastructure:
"The debate over exploratory drilling in Alaska is over." a spokesperson said.
If the comparison to Deepwater doesn't send a shiver down the spine's of everyone from environmentalists to shareholders in Shell than perhaps the inadequacy of their containment cap testing will. Documents obtained by PEER through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Shell only field-tested the cap which would contain a possible spill for a total of two hours. Of this time only 15 minutes of the test was under the same pressure as it would be in the sea, in a spill situation it could be needed there for days or even weeks. There was no independent verification of the test carried out by the company in Alaska.
To reiterate: A key piece of equipment that would prevent a Gulf of Mexico style blowout has been field-tested for about the same amount of time that it takes me to get out of bed in the morning- and there was no independent verification of this anyway. Oh and did I mention that this equipment has never been tested in icy waters?
For many people, including some of the elders living in Barrow, the idea of Shell drilling in the Chukchi Sea at all is entirely unfathomable. For others the prospect of investment and jobs in a part of the USA which receives little outside help is welcome. But I doubt anybody, not local people, nor environmentalists or even our pension funds, who saw their investments in BP plummet after Deepwater, will be happy to see Shell's woeful preparation this summer. It won't just be the pristine wilderness and spectacular wildlife that will suffer if there's a spill, people all over the globe will be hit.
The overriding irony of the situation as it stands is that Shell are relying on a retreated ice cap, caused in part by it's own climate changing activities in the past, to start drilling late in the season. If the ice doesn't return as quickly as normal, and Shell are able to start drilling, it may only be the company itself who celebrate.
Follow Matthew Butcher on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fairpensions