Shell Oil has been doing test drilling in the Arctic off Alaska's north shore and this week the reality of just how problematic this can be came to fruition. The Arctic is an extreme environment. And planning for all the potential things that can go wrong usually leaves out the one thing that does go wrong.
As I opened my morning newspaper today buried at the back of the first section was just the kind of story that environmentalists have been warning us about since oil exploration began in the Arctic. In September Shell Oil stopped prospecting in the Chukchi Sea with its rig, named Kulluk, because of equipment failures, and unexpected ice build ups. The operation to bring the rig south to a winter refit at a shipyard in the state of Washington required the use of tow ships. In weather described as horrendous, the rig broke free of its towing vessel, the Aiviq, which experienced repeated engine failures. A second emergency vessel, the Nanuq, attempted to re-establish a tow line but was unsuccessful in the stormy seas. The drifting rig eventually ran aground on the coast of Sitkalidak, an uninhabited island near the community of Old Harbor situated on Kodiak Island where there is a major Coast Guard station. The strait in which it ran aground is home to a threatened species of sea lion. The attempts to re-establish a tow line were hampered by winds of 70 knots and 15 meter (50 foot) waves. The 18-member skeleton crew (the rig in operation has as many as 130 on board) had to be removed by the U.S. Coast Guard before the rig broke free and ran aground.
The current problem is one of salvage and to ensure that the 541,000 liters (143,000 gallons) of diesel fuel and 45,000 liters (12,000 gallons) of hazardous lubricants on board remain there. The Kulluk at last report is upright and stable. But should it continue to be subject to rough pounding from ocean waves its hull could breach unleashing a chemical disaster.
The Kulluk is a rig rated to work in water depths of up to approximately 120 meters (400 feet) and capable of drilling to depths of greater than 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) below the ocean floor. Built by Mitsui and commissioned in 1983, its hull is ice-strengthened and when positioned for drilling has 12 anchor lines to keep it in place. It is also equipped with a survival anchor. With no propulsion system of its own the rig relies on tow vessels for propulsion. It is not certain after it broke away from the tow if the survival anchor was deployed. This if deployed may have stopped it from running aground. But we don't know if the anchor was used or if it malfunctioned. In hindsight, choosing an unpowered rig incapable of navigating on its own in an environment known for rough sea conditions may have been a big mistake because ultimately a rig like this turns into a big floating piece of steel that when out of control can do a lot of damage.
This isn't Shell's first mishap in its Arctic deep water drilling venture in 2012. Thick ice delayed operations in the spring. Then an accident happened with a second drilling ship that nearly ran aground. When deploying an oil spill containment dome the operation failed during testing and the dome sustained considerable damage. And in September when finally Shell was ready to go, after one day it was forced to abandon its test well operation because of unusually heavy sea ice in the area.
The current operation to salvage the rig is being frustrated by high seas and Arctic darkness, just two of the natural challenges of the extreme polar environment at this time of year. Shell was being watched by other oil companies who were going to start their own operations based on Shell's expected success. That apparently is not in the cards now and critics of Arctic oil exploration can point to Shell and say "We told you so."
For Arctic oil exploration the Kulluk and other mishaps that Shell has experienced raise some questions:
- If the rig survives the grounding intact should it be used again for Arctic oil exploration or should Shell start over and commission a better and motorized rig?
- The rig ran aground near a large Coast Guard centre in the Alaskan islands. What if an accident like this happens again in a more remote location with no Coast Guard nearby? Is it worth the risk considering the potential environmental impact?
- The U.S. government in its pursuit to be self sufficient in energy before the end of the decade has laid bets on alternatives to Arctic oil and gas exploration including extensive onshore exploration where containment of spills is more manageable. Will the government suddenly realize that current technology is not meeting the standards needed for Arctic oil and gas exploration and withdraw its permits?
Essays and comments posted in World Future Society and THE FUTURIST magazine blog portion of this site are the intellectual property of the authors, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Future Society takes no stand on what the future will or should be like.
KEEP UP WITH WFS NEWS & UPCOMING EVENTS
October 5, 2015 - All the boxes have been unpacked. All the cupboards are stuffed to the gills. Finally I can begin to get back to what I like doing, writing about science, technology and the future.
October 2, 2015 - This last week has proven to be tougher than both my wife and I thought. Moving at our age leads to lots of aches and pains. There is only so much that these old bones and muscles can endure before they protest seeking acetaminophen or something stronger to stop the ache.
Money is the primary mechanism for storing and exchanging value, especially in our daily purchases, and it’s heading rapidly into a faster, smarter and more mobile future. Nevertheless, the constant in the midst of change will remain levels of human trust in the proliferating forms of money.
September 23, 2015 - In 2015 437 companies so far have factored carbon emissions in their financial planning.
September 22, 2015 - There are no geopolitical boundaries when it comes to the atmosphere. The molecules of air I exhale right now at some point may find their way to China and back again.
September 21, 2015 - One of the most interesting 21st century phenomenon is the rise of an entirely new type of business built on the infrastructure of the Internet and designed not just to make money but to provide a public benefit as well. In the past public benefit was something delivered by government. Think libraries and hospitals.
September 20, 2015 - Star Trek IV The Voyage Home featured humpback whales and a scene in which Scotty and Dr. McCoy offered a company in San Francisco the secret to transparent aluminum, a material not yet invented at the time. Dr. McCoy questioned whether the disclosure would alter the future.
September 18, 2015 - If the entire Antarctic continent were to melt it would add 58 meters (190 feet) to world sea levels. The real question is how much additional carbon in the atmosphere would be needed for this scenario to play out?