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Shell Oil Rig Runs Aground Raising Grave Concerns of Drilling in the Arctic

Energy

National Wildlife Federation

By Miles Grant

A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Air Station Kodiak conducts hoists of the second of 18 crewmen from the mobile drilling unit Kulluk in 15 to 20-foot seas 80 miles southwest of Kodiak City Saturday, Dec. 29. The Coast Guard was prompted to rescue the crew of the Kulluk after there were problems with the tow Thursday and the weather conditions began to deteriorate. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.

Despite warnings from wildlife advocates of the risks of allowing offshore oil drilling in the rough seas off Alaska, Shell has begun drilling test wells. This week, the New York Times reports the drilling effort turned life-threatening:

An enormous Shell Oil offshore drilling rig ran aground on an island in the Gulf of Alaska on Monday night after it broke free from tow ships in rough seas, officials said.

The rig, the Kulluk, which was used for test drilling in the Arctic last summer, is carrying about 139,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of lubricating oil and hydraulic fluid, the officials said.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard, 17 crew members on board the Kulluk rig were rescued and brought to safety. But the fate of the area’s wildlife isn’t so clear. While no oil sheen had been spotted as of New Year’s Day, as the Washington Post reports, any spill wouldn’t have to go far to find a range of species:

The Kodiak archipelago, where the rig ran aground, is home to nearly 250 bird species, including horned puffins, red-faced cormorants and Harlequin ducks. It boasts among the highest winter bird counts in Alaska. It is also home to Kodiak brown bears, who feed on local salmon streams.

Watch the grounded rig being battered by waves in this clip from The UpTake:

The Times adds that the grounding is only the latest problem for Shell’s Arctic drilling effort:

Last summer, the Kulluk drilled a shallow test well in the Beaufort Sea while another rig drilled a similar hole in the Chukchi Sea to the west.

But Shell announced in September that it would be forced to delay further drilling until this year after a specialized piece of equipment designed to contain oil from a spill was damaged in a testing accident.

The episode was one of a number of setbacks for the Arctic drilling program last year. Shell now says it hopes to drill five exploratory wells in the region during the 2013 drilling season, which begins in mid-July.

Last August, the National Wildlife Federation’s Jeremy Symons warned of the dangers of Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, even calling out the Kulluk by name. Today, his warning seems eerily prescient:

This week a Shell Oil Co. drilling rig, the Kulluk, headed towards the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coast to begin drilling operations.  This flagship effort to open up Arctic waters to drilling has already received the thumbs up from the Obama Administration. I can’t help but recall all those “what if” moments following the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.  What if we hadn’t turned a blind eye to insufficient spill planning?  What if we had proper oversight of oil companies and held them accountable for lying about the risks before approving their permits?  What if we truly weighed the risks and the rewards of moving into new drilling frontiers before disaster strikes?

Shell’s rig is not simply another rig.  It is the pioneer, intended to open a new frontier and convert an unspoiled aquatic wilderness into the next big oil rush. These waters are vital habitat for an abundance of wildlife such as ringed seals, as well as whales that travel the world’s oceans and birds that migrate across North America every year.

Shell’s troubles are far from the only trouble the oil industry has seen in Alaska recently. There was a BP oil spill in July 2011 and a Spanish drilling company’s well blowout in February 2012. As a 2010 National Wildlife Federation report detailed, oil disasters are tragically common.

Visit EcoWatch’s OFFSHORE OIL DRILLING page for more related news on this topic.

 

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"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

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Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."