Sheila McNulty The US should either let Shell drill in the Arctic or refund its leases

While Royal Dutch Shell waits to hear from the US government on whether it will be permitted to drill in Alaska next year, environmentalists are stepping up their campaign for a “no” vote.

The Pew Environment Group is the latest to speak out against drilling in the arctic. It has released the most comprehensive analysis done on the challenges to preventing and containing spills in the area. Highlights include noting that darkness, extreme weather and shifting sea ice could delay efforts to stop an oil blowout in the US Arctic Ocean for six months or more.

Here is a comment from Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew’s US Arctic Program, on the report:

The Gulf of Mexico catastrophe showed us the consequences of lax oversight and inadequate response capacity, even in temperate waters near population centers. Sites proposed for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean are some of the most remote areas on earth, and the challenges of drilling are formidable. Until reforms ensure that oil companies can respond to significant spills in real-world conditions, all proposed oil and gas leasing, exploration and development in the US Arctic should be delayed.

Were such delays to stretch on much longer, it would be a big blow to Shell, which has been trying for years to get its drilling program off the ground in Alaska. It is five years into some of its 10-year leases there. And has spent some $3.5bn dollars to drill in Alaska.

The company had reached the final approval stage when BP’s accident in the gulf led the US government to put everything on hold. Now Shell is even offering to build a spill containment system for the Arctic if it can just be permitted to move ahead. Shell had this to say about Pew’s report:

The Pew report is premised on the uniqueness of the Arctic and, on that, we agree. Shell has taken extraordinary steps to compensate for the harsh conditions we expect to encounter in the Arctic, and that is evident in all aspects of our program, including ice management, a commitment to oil spill response, and new baseline science. Our Arctic exploration plan has been scrutinised by regulators, stakeholders and the courts, and we look forward to demonstrating once again that we can operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic.

It is a challenge few would be willing to take on in the current anti-drilling climate following the explosion and spill in the Gulf. Pew notes that using booms to contain ocean spills, then removing the oil and burning it or applying chemical dispersants, can be challenging enough in temperate waters.

Assumptions about how these techniques would work in extreme Arctic conditions are based on small-scale, controlled experiments or guesswork, since there have been no major Arctic offshore oil spills, the report says. It lists potential complications as:

Ice, cold temperatures, and 10- to 30-foot seas can impede the deployment of boats and skimmers and tear containment booms. Low visibility and hurricane-strength wind can make finding and igniting oil slicks impossible. Aerial application of dispersants requires low wind and high visibility, neither of which is reliable in the highly changeable Arctic climate. Simply getting equipment and trained personnel to an Arctic spill site would be a difficult task.

In addition, Pew notes:

A single road connects Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska’s Beaufort Sea, to central Alaska, 415 miles south. Farther west, no roads link the Chukchi Sea coast to the rest of Alaska. The eight main villages in the region are not connected to each other or to the rest of Alaska by road. The nearest major port (Unalaska, in the Aleutian Islands) is 1,300 nautical miles from Point Barrow, where the Beaufort and Chukchi seas meet. There are no Coast Guard vessels resident in the Beaufort or Chukchi Seas. The nearest US Coast Guard Air Station is located 950 air miles away in Kodiak, Alaska.

But if Shell is willing to bet its reputation – and the industry’s access to the Arctic – on its belief that it can drill there safely, then it probably can. But that does not mean an accident is not going to happen. Humans make mistakes, and Arctic weather is unpredictable. But there must be a way to ensure all possible precautions are taken. And once that is done, the US government must either grant its approval for Shell to move ahead or refund the money it paid for leases - and spent with the intention to drill – in an area it is now barred from exploiting.