Shell's Arctic Drilling Hits a Walrus-Shaped Wall

A decision by wildlife officials slashes the scope of the company’s 2015 plans for oil prospecting in the Chukchi Sea.

A young Pacific walrus bull in coastal Alaska waters. (Photo: Joel Garlich-Miller/USFWS)

Jun 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

An obscure wildlife protection measure put a dent in Shell’s Arctic dreams on Tuesday, as federal officials told the company it would not be allowed to prospect for oil simultaneously at two sites nine miles apart in the Chukchi Sea, as it had requested.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upheld a federal law mandating that wells operating in the area at the same time be at least 15 miles apart so that Pacific walruses would not be harassed by the activity as they migrate or forage for food. Environmental groups had sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on June 23 urging her to uphold the walrus protection measure.

The Obama administration is considering whether the Pacific walrus warrants federal endangered species protections, as warming temperatures caused by climate change have sharply diminished its Arctic sea ice habitat.

The agency did grant Shell permission for potential “take,” or deaths, of small numbers of polar bears and Pacific walruses during its prospecting activities. The activist group Friends of the Earth criticized that decision.

“Today’s authorization takes us one step closer to letting Shell turn the pristine American Arctic Ocean into an oil and gas sacrifice zone,” said FOE climate campaigner Marissa Knodel in a statement.

With the FWS authorization in hand, Shell now needs one more document, a drilling permit from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, in order to begin boring a well.

According to the drilling plan approved this spring by the Obama administration, Shell must have two drilling rigs in or near its Arctic lease site. One must be available within days to drill a relief well in case the other has a blowout, akin to BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010.

But until today, Shell probably didn’t intend to let that second rig sit idle, as less drilling extends the time it will take for the company to make back the $7 billion it has spent on Arctic Ocean oil development so far, or even the $1 billion it has slated for this summer’s operations.

So, Why Should You Care? If science had the last word, the Arctic Ocean would be barred to energy companies. Research recently published in Nature found that there is no climate-friendly way to use any of the oil and gas below the Arctic seafloor. To have any chance of keeping global temperature rise below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, all these fossil fuels must remain buried.

Related: We Might Avert Climate Catastrophe With This One Radical Choice

Proponents argue that tapping these oil supplies is important for making the United States’ energy supply more secure. They also maintain that successful energy development in the region will help bring jobs and revenue to isolated Arctic Alaskan communities.

Opponents fear an oil spill or well blowout could cause irreparable harm to Arctic ecosystems and the wildlife they support.

When Shell’s primary drilling platform, the Polar Pioneer, left the Port of Seattle recently, it faced protesters in kayaks determined to make a statement even if they could not hope to stop the enormous vessel.

No protests greeted the platform when it arrived at a port in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands early Saturday morning. A local official credited the calm to Alaska’s more extreme ocean conditions—also among the reasons that many environmentalists oppose oil drilling in the region.

“You know, down in Seattle, there’s harbor boats and rescue boats and people to pull you out of the water all over the place. You don’t have that here,” Dutch Harbor mayor Shirley Marquardt told NPR. “And the water is tremendously brutally cold even in the summer, and it doesn’t take much.”

Shell’s other leased vessel, the Noble Discoverer, set off for Alaska on Tuesday. According to a number of local news reports, activists in kayaks met the ship, attempting to block its path toward the Arctic Ocean as it departed from the Port of Everett, Washington, early in the morning.

The Nobel Discoverer’s likely return to the Arctic is its own controversy within a controversy. The rig’s owner, Noble Drilling LLC, pleaded guilty to eight federal felony offenses, paid $12.2 million in fines, and was put on a four-year probation by the Justice Department for violating federal environmental protection laws with both the Discoverer and the drill rig Kulluk during Shell’s disastrous Arctic drilling season of 2012.