Obama defends Arctic drilling decision on eve of Alaska climate change trip

29 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facing fierce winds and high seas, Shell halts Arctic drilling.

Barack Obama has been forced to defend his decision to allow the hunt for oil in the last great wilderness of the Arctic, on the eve of an historic visit to Alaska intended to spur the fight against climate change. WASHINGTON — High winds that are battering Alaska’s northern coastline and whipping through the state have forced Shell to pause exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.Shell has brought a temporary halt to its offshore Arctic oil-drilling operation because of dangerously high winds and waters in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska, according to the Associated Press. The three-day tour – which will include a hike across a shrinking glacier and visits to coastal communities buffeted by sea-level rise and erosion – was intended to showcase the real-time effects of climate change.

The eastern Chukchi Sea this week experienced gale-force winds in the range of 39 to 54 p.m., said Ed Townsend, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. The company has been drilling there since July 30 but initially only to a depth of 3,000 feet because important capping stack emergency equipment was not in place. A coastal flood warning, high surf advisory and small craft advisory have been issued for the region. “Due to high wind and sea states, we paused all critical operations,” said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh. “The Transocean Polar Pioneer proactively stopped operations more than a day ago, based on the forecast, and remains safely anchored over the well.” It was unclear how quickly Shell might be able to resume its operations, though weather forecasts show winds dying down over the weekend. Once that equipment arrived, on August 17, Shell was cleared by the US Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), to drill way down into the oil zone.

There were no environmental impacts reported, but the rig sustained substantial damage and was ultimately written off for $200 million and sold for scrap. One day into its last drilling attempt, in September 2012, Shell was forced to briefly abandon its Burger prospect after a 30-mile-by-12-mile iceberg half the size of Houston encroached on the site.

Bad weather affected drilling in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2012. “It’s why we use a combination of satellite images, sonar and on-site reconnaissance to inform our operations,” he said. “With safety the first priority, we take a conservative approach to these weather events and make plans to curtail operations well in advance.” Arctic offshore drilling is strongly opposed by environmental groups that say oil companies have not demonstrated the ability to respond effectively to a spill in harsh conditions where floating ice could hamper cleanup operations. In addition, because the icebreaker carried crucial safety equipment, Shell could not start drilling into oil-bearing zones until the vessel was in place at the drill site. Furthermore, the company is not allowed drill more than one well at a time at Burger, a stipulation meant to minimise impacts to the local walrus population. A number have already chosen to move but have no funds to do so. “There is a very obvious contradiction between meaningful action to address climate change and continued exploration for remote and difficult hydrocarbon resources,” said Michael LeVine, Arctic campaigner for Oceana. “Moving forward with exploiting Arctic oil and gas is inconsistent with the Administration’s stated goal and meaningful action on climate change.” Obama’s first stop on Monday will be a foreign ministers’ conference in Anchorage. Shell is temporarily relocating staff at its housing camp in Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States. “A road used to transport people to the camp is down to one lane due to high water and could become impassable,” Smith said.

After a visit to melting glaciers in the Kenai Fjords National park, Obama will visit the rural community of Dillingham, close to Bristol Bay, site of the world’s biggest natural salmon run. The president will also visit the town of Kotzebue, which is increasingly battered by Arctic storms because of coastal erosion and the retreat of sea ice cover. The president is also expected to promote his plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 32% below 2005 levels, and his expansion of protections to Alaska wilderness areas. Giving the go-ahead to Shell to drill two exploratory wells in the harsh and unforgiving conditions puts the Arctic at risk of a spill, campaign groups argue.

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