Interior Dept. To Probe Shell’s Arctic Drilling Mishaps

Jan 9, 2013

The Obama Administration announced a sweeping inquiry into Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling program yesterday. The 60-day probe will look at the company’s mishaps in Alaska and here in Puget Sound. KUOW’s John Ryan reports.

Shell's Kulluk oil rig, which washed aground on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska last week.
Credit Photo by Jon Klingenberg / U.S. Coast Guard

The announcement from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar comes a week after a Shell oil rig ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska on New Year’s Eve.

It was the latest in a series of mishaps the oil giant suffered in 2012 in its quest for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Shell has invested close to $5 billion in the effort over the past six years.

In a press release announcing the inquiry, Salazar said the Administration is fully committed to exploring for energy in the Arctic. But he also said the challenges posed by the Arctic environment demand a high level of scrutiny.

Environmental groups welcomed Salazar’s announcement. Michael Levine is an attorney with Oceana in Juneau, Alaska.

Levine: “Shell has proven again and again it is unprepared to operate in Alaskan waters. The federal government is complicit in those failures because it granted the approvals that allowed Shell to begin these operations.”

Most of Shell’s misfortunes last year occurred outside the Arctic. Its Kulluk drill rig ran aground off the southern coast of Alaska as it was being towed to Seattle.

It also had problems with construction of a spill-containment barge in Bellingham. The barge was delayed by months, ultimately forcing the company to shelve its plans to drill for Arctic oil until next summer.

Internal emails obtained by KUOW showed that an underwater test of the barge near Anacortes was a spectacular failure. An Interior Department official who witnessed the test said it left Shell’s oil-spill containment dome “crushed like a beer can.”

Two federal probes into Shell’s Arctic drilling program were announced on Tuesday. The Coast Guard is conducting a separate inquiry into the grounding of the Kulluk.

On Monday, Shell succesfully floated the Kulluk off the rocks and into a sheltered bay near Alaska’s Kodiak Island. That effort has involved more than 700 industry and government officials.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith in Anchorage said Shell welcomes the Interior Department inquiry and that it will strengthen the company’s Arctic drilling program.

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