Arctic drilling

Shell’s difficulties demonstrate the need for continuous and rigorous oversight

Royal Dutch Shell, the global oil company, has had a series of mishaps in its efforts to drill in the Arctic waters off Alaska. With that, environmental groups now are calling for a presidential hold on Arctic drilling.

That may not be warranted. What Shell has experienced is worrisome, but the damage has been to the oil company, not the environment. Still, at a minimum, the president should make it clear to officials at the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement – the agency that regulates offshore drilling – that no laxity or slipups will be tolerated.

Among other things, Shell saw a containment dome meant to cap oil spills damaged in a test and a drilling ship called the Noble Discoverer that at one point was adrift and moving toward shore. Then, on New Year’s Eve, a drilling ship named the Kulluk broke free of the ship towing it in a storm and was grounded on an uninhabited island southwest of Kodiak Island. The Kulluk is circular, has a conical hull and no means of propulsion. It was being towed to the Pacific Northwest for maintenance.

The Kulluk held no crude oil, but did carry fuel and drilling chemicals. Its crew was evacuated, and no leaks have been reported.

As the Associated Press has reported, Shell has spent more than $7 billion on lease permits and drilling work in an effort to tap what the U.S. Geological Survey says could be more than 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Arctic waters. And it has done so with the encouragement of the state of Alaska, which gets 90 percent of its general fund revenue from oil while watching its North Slope oil production drop off.

Critics’ concerns are twofold: Shell’s string of mishaps and the fact that the drilling it plans would be in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The thinking is that if Shell cannot keep its act together in the gulf south of Alaska, what might happen in the Arctic waters to the state’s north. As a former Shell researcher told Bloomberg, the Arctic is “the most difficult and inhospitable environment on the planet.”

For all that, it also is home to polar bears, seals, walrus, whales and other species, some of which are endangered. All are critical to Alaska Natives.

Do these episodes justify a moratorium? Probably not, but they certainly suggest the utmost vigilance. President Barack Obama should make clear that he expects no less.