The Kulluk, a massive arctic drilling rig operated by the Shell Oil Company (the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell), has run aground southeast of Alaska, demonstrating that the question surrounding drilling in the arctic isn’t necessarily whether they should — it might just be whether they can.
The rig is near Kodiak Island (seen below), and it is reported that there is a spilling risk; it is carrying 12,000 gallons of lubricating oil/hydraulic fluid and 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
Although the Coast Guard is preparing spill cleanup equipment, flyovers have not detected any spill as of this time. However, weather has prevented putting a salvage crew on board, as reported by USA Today:
A Coast Guard plane and a helicopter flew over the Kulluk on Tuesday, but severe weather didn’t permit putting marine experts on board the drilling rig, which had grounded on a sand and gravel beach in stormy seas.
The storm eased Tuesday, with gusts up to 35 mph and waves up to 30 feet high, and similar conditions were expected Wednesday. Officials were hoping to get marine experts onboard to take photos and videos, and then come up with a more complete salvage plan once weather permits.
The incident occurred while towing the rig to Seattle for repairs and became separated from the towing ship. Attempts to reconnect to the towing vessel failed due to the weather.
Like each of the incidents before it, the ongoing crisis with the Kulluk underscores the numerous challenges presented by operating in the Arctic, as well as the industry’s lack of preparedness to anticipate and overcome them. Drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean carries an enormous amount of risk – a fact pointed out not just by environmentalists but a majorinsurance company, bank, legislative body, and even a fellow oil major among others.
As Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) emphasized in a statement released Tuesday, “Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies … Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.”
Problems with logistics, infrastructure, and scientific knowledge only add to a bigger problem: that the Arctic is already being battered by accelerating climate change. In the summer of 2012, the region lost a mass of ice the size of Canada and Texas combined.
Rep. Markey is the senior Democratic Party member on the Natural Resources Committee, and is currently running to replace outgoing Senator John Kerry when he takes over the State Department later this year.
While it appears that consequences in this situation won’t be too severe, the question must be asked — how accountable, exactly, should oil companies be? After all, the Coast Guard mobilization isn’t free; why should taxpayers pay for a massive oil company’s mistake?