A Glimpse at the Chukchi’s Future

Shell Oil, a company with an indisputable, proven record of incompetence in the Arctic, has been approved by the Department of the Interior to drill for oil in the the Chukchi Sea. What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s recall Shell and its contractors have admitted to falsifying records, discharging polluted water and violations of the environmental laws too numerous to list here. Shell and it contractors totaled a drilling rig, towing it into the teeth of a storm, to avoid taxes. Shell’s spill control gear failed catastrophically when tested in a benign environment. Shell is the Keystone Kops of oil exploration, except there’s nothing funny about it.

And now the last major barrier to renewed Chukchi Sea drilling is resolved in Shell’s favor.

A few days later, a pipeline transporting oil in the Santa Barbara Channel, of the coast of California, failed catastrophically. At least 105,000 gallons of crude oil, as WC writes, is killing birds and sea life, and polluting the waters of the Channel. This isn’t a drilling disaster; the Santa Barbara coast has already experienced one of those. This is an infrastructure failure, cause unknown.

Oiled Double-crested Cormorant

Oiled Double-crested Cormorant, Santa Barbara Channel, May 2015

The amount of oil is always understated in the initial reports; WC offers dollars to doughnuts that the size of the spill be revised upwards substantially. But WC doesn’t measure spills in gallons; they have to be measured in environmental impact.

Wading through crude oil, Santa Barbara Channel, May 2015

Wading through crude oil, Santa Barbara Channel, May 2015

When – not if, but when – the oil spill in the Chukchi Sea occurs, either in the process of drilling or in the transport of crude oil if Shell gets lucky, it won’t be American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants and Laughing Gulls that are slimed by crude and killed; it will be Murres, Puffins and Glaucous Gulls. It will be threatened species like Spectacled Eiders and Ivory Gulls. It will be Grey Whales, Bowhead Whales and Belugas. Ringed and Harp Seals. Walrus and Northern Sea Lions.

Shell tells us they can do it “safely.” But BP told us their drilling was safe in the Gulf of Mexico, and were made liars by their criminal negligence in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Union Oil told us it as safe to drill in the Santa Barbara Channel, and then gave us the 1969 disaster. Exxon told us was safe to ship crude oil through Prince William Sound, and then gave us the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The oil industry is three for three in the major offshore drilling fields: in the Gulf of Mexico, on the coast of California, and in Prince William Sound. If you think that the Chukchi or anywhere else in the Arctic is gong to be any different, you’re living in a dream world. The reality is the stench of crude oil on the coast of southern California, dying sea life and waves of crude oil washing on shore.

The only thing that’s different in the case of Shell’s Chukchi drilling program is that we already know Shell is grossly incompetent. And we know that the Chukchi is a harsher, less forgiving environment.

We don’t have to make this mistake. We don’t have to be so desperate for still more crude oil that we will play Russian roulette with a fully loaded pistol. But, apparently, we will.