EDITORIAL: Shell incident serious, but doesn't deserve overreaction

On Jan. 5, while the Shell drill rig Kulluk was bobbing along the shores of Sitkalidak Island, a fuel leak inside a fish processing vessel triggered the bilge pump and sent 150 gallons of diesel fuel into Kodiak Harbor.

This past Nov. 13, the tug Polar Wind was pulling the barge Unimak Trader between Sand Point and Dutch Harbor when it lost its towline, began taking on water and went aground on Ukolnoi Island east of Cold Bay. Investigators discovered that some 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from the Polar Wind within Steller sea lion critical habitat but had been dissipated by the adverse weather.

Last June in Kodiak, the U.S. Army landing craft Monterrey struck Kalsin Reef and spilled 15,000 gallons of No. 2 diesel into Chiniak Bay, resulting in the largest spill at Kodiak in more than a decade and a cleanup of fuel that washed up on the Emerald Isle’s beaches.

At the time, this is what Steven Russell of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation told the Kodiak Mirror (emphasis ours): “We consider this a significant spill. We have spills of this size (statewide) fairly frequently, usually in the winter months during vessel groundings.

Every one of the above incidents involved transportation accidents or malfunctions that resulted in fuel spills that reached beaches and/or critical habitat for various fish and mammal species. Not one, however, received the sort of attention that the drifting and eventual grounding of the Kulluk has gotten without a drop of oil or diesel being spilled.

This isn’t meant to minimize the seriousness of what has happened with the Kulluk, but rather to put it into the proper context.

None of the above incidents triggered any debate over tug-and-barge transportation, at-sea fish processing or the Army’s competence.

Yet today, the opponents of Shell’s quest to explore and eventually produce oil from the Outer Continental Shelf off Alaska’s Arctic coast want to use the Kulluk incident as proof positive that Shell cannot “master” Arctic conditions and should therefore be stopped in its tracks.

Here’s a newsflash: Nobody has ever conquered Alaska’s weather or its seas, and if the bar for operating in Alaska is mastering Mother Nature then every fishing boat, tug, barge and cargo ship should be tied up permanently.

Although Shell was able to complete limited “top hole” work in the Arctic without incident in a shortened season last summer and fall, a series of mishaps and technical problems preceding its flotilla reaching the Chukchi and Beaufort seas has also contributed to the heightened attention to the Kulluk grounding and legitimate questions about whether the company knows what it is doing.

To be sure, Shell cannot be let off the hook for the issues with its spill response barge Arctic Challenger resulting in the vessel being denied certification to operate in the OCS and thereby preventing the company from drilling to oil-bearing depths. There are also the recent reports of alleged crew safety violations with the other drill ship Noble Discoverer that held it up in Seward for weeks while the Coast Guard investigated, which are more troubling from this perspective than a tug engine failure, possibly from contaminated fuel, that contributed to the grounding of the Kulluk.

After five years of preparation and false starts for its Arctic operation, Shell should have had its boxes checked on issues such as electrical systems and safety measures long before now, and had those problems not arisen there would be less ammunition for the company’s critics, who, in any case, need none at all in their attempts to shoot down OCS development.

Investigations under way by the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Coast Guard should be welcomed by Shell, and we of course hope they don’t become politically driven even though that is probably a wildly optimistic sentiment with Congressional vultures already circling.

There are serious questions for Shell, but using this incident as a reason to stop OCS exploration is an opportunistic overreaction by those who oppose development of all kinds all the time and must be resisted.

01/14/2013 - 9:57am