By Ron Hart
As BP, Haliburton, and Transocean duke it out in U.S. courts and the U.S. government overseers try to deny all culpability for ecocide in the Gulf of Mexico, billions of dollars are at stake in remediation, restitution, and punitive awards.
Those individuals with superior responsibility for the ecocide will probably avoid any criminal sanctions. Senior Big Oil executives will continue to draw six to seven figure salaries, enjoy annual bonuses, and eventually retire with golden handshakes.
Even more important, driven by greed, they will be free to plan more dangerous industrial activities with the potential for grave harm to Earth and its inhabitants.
Learning from disaster
A report from the Balsillie School of International Affairs notes: “It is natural, inevitable and desirable to look to past disasters in order to improve responses to future ones, but lesson-drawing, in such cases, is rarely systematic, as responses to disasters are, by their very nature, typically ad hoc.”
“…there is a growing risk of future Arctic marine accidents, whose outcomes result in serious loss of life and environmentally damaging oil spills. International search and rescue and oil spill mitigation agreements can mislead observers to believe that there is sufficient North American capacity to implement them confidently. Increased traffic, unsafe vessels, inexperienced captains, insufficiently trained and tested crews and operators, unreliable charts, weak to non-existent disaster response and salvage capacity, and the inherent challenges of Arctic operations need to be addressed urgently. Aboriginal, local and national economic development initiatives are suffering as a result of these deficiencies.”
So if disasters take place the official line requires us to respond to Big Oil’s environmental disasters ad hoc. Why?
It is assumed, we should prudently rush to get regulations in place for protect the environment from corporate activities and then fly by the seat of our pants. That’s the official line.
The other inconvenient option: Stop ecocide!
A Greenpeace campaign urges President Obama, “Mr. President, now is the time for leadership. Arctic drilling got its chance. It’s time we kick our addiction to fossil fuels and invest in clean energy sources like wind and solar. I am urging you to take the first step toward a clean energy future and declare Arctic drilling ‘off limits’ forever.”
Greenpeace lists 8 reasons why Shell can’t be trusted in the Arctic:
1. Shell has no idea how much an oil spill clean-up would cost
In March 2012, in response to questions from the UK’s Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, Peter Velez, Shell’s head of emergency response in the Arctic admitted that Shell had not assessed the costs of a clean-up operation in the Arctic, leaving shareholders exposed to potentially huge financial losses.
2. Shell’s barge, the Arctic Challenger, was not deemed safe enough by the US government
In July last year the US authorities announced that a key part of Shell’s oil spill response fleet hadn’t been allowed to sail to the Arctic because it did not meet US Coast Guard safety standards. The ship, Arctic Challenger, is a 36-year-old barge used to drag safety equipment through sea ice. But US authorities are not happy with what they’ve seen on-board and didn’t feel confident the Arctic Challenger could withstand the extremely harsh Arctic environment. Originally Shell agreed that the ship would be able to withstand a 100-year storm, but company engineers are now saying that it is “no longer appropriate” for the barge to meet such onerous standards.
3. US Coast Guard “not confident” with Shell’s dispersants in the event of an oil spill
In an interview with Bloomberg the commandant of the US Coast Guard expressed doubts about the impact of dispersants in Alaska in the event of an oil spill, saying – “I’m not confident what it will do in the colder water up in Alaska”. Shell has included dispersant use as a major part of its oil spill response plan for the Arctic.
4. Shell’s drill ship runs aground in a ‘stiff breeze’
On 15 July Shell’s drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, ran aground in the sheltered and relatively calm Dutch Harbour, Alaska, in a 35mph wind. Both the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk are ageing, rusty vessels and not the state of the art fleet that Shell has been boasting about. The Kulluk has been mothballed for the last 13 years whilst the Frontier Discoverer was built in 1966.
5. Shell’s drill ship catches fire
In November the engine of the drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, caught fire as it returned to Dutch Harbour, Alaska, and had to be put out by specialist fire crews.
6. Shell’s capping stack safety system ‘crushed like a beer can’ during testing
In December it was revealed that the oil spill containment system that Shell was supposed to have on-site in the Arctic was badly damaged in September testing. A Federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement representative disclosed that the sub-sea capping stack was “crushed like a beer can”.
7. Shell’s Alaskan Vice-President admits: “There will be spills”
In an interview with the BBC, Pete Slaiby admits that an oil spill is what people were most concerned about. “If you ask me will there ever be spills, I imagine there will be spills,” he said.
8. Shell’s Arctic oil rig hits the rocks
On 31 December 2012, Shell’s oil rig, Kulluk, ran aground off the coast of Alaska whilst being towed back to harbour in Seattle. It had hit heavy weather in the gulf of Alaska a few days earlier which caused the 400ft towing line to break and the rig to drift free. A tug managed to reconnect with the Kulluk but it “experienced multiple engine failures” 50 miles south of Kodiak Island, causing the rig to drift free once again in 35ft seas and winds of 40mph. The rig eventually ran aground after another attempt to tow it away. The Kulluk had 139,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of hydraulic oil on board but as yet no spills
have been reported. It took six days for the rig to finally be freed from grounding – noone knows yet how bad the damage is.
Opportunities to take action
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Without proper laws in place, Big Oil executives with principal responsibility for disasters will continue unimpeded. We have to change the rules that govern corporate behavior.
For example, this week Earthjustice reported that ConocoPhillips— one of the principal players in the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea—is eager to drill in the Arctic Ocean.
From an Earthjustice blog by Kari Birdseye:
“A report out this week says drilling activities can harm endangered bowhead whales, native to the very seas Big Oil wants to drill. The National Marine Fisheries Service analysis reports that increased drilling and other oil exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas could have “major” impacts on bowhead whales, even without an oil spill.
And even though Shell called off plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean this summer (just as both of its drill rigs are being carried to Asia for repairs), another big oil company is requesting permission to explore the icy Arctic waters in 2014. ConocoPhillips has submitted drilling and oil spill response plans, but the government has so far refused to make those proposed plans available to the public.
As ill-equipped as Shell looked last summer, ConocoPhillips’ proposal looks even worse. Shell’s huge drill rig, the Kulluk, was helpless as it listed on the rocks of an Alaskan island—even though it was designed to withstand the harsh weather and icy waters of the Arctic Ocean—but ConocoPhillips wants use a warm water drilling rig, called a jack-up rig, to drill in the Arctic’s icy waters. These drill rigs perch on long, spidery legs that extend down to the ocean floor. It is hard to picture such a precarious rig withstanding summer ice floes the size of Manhattan or 35-foot waves and hurricane-force winds. The potential for disaster is obvious.
Earthjustice attorneys will continue to represent clients in challenging flawed and unlawful oil and gas activities that put the Arctic Ocean, its wildlife and its people at risk. Our aim is to promote a clean energy future and protect the pristine American Arctic waters from harmful industrial activities in the short term with a long-term focus of conservation based on the best available science.”