Sunday, March 4, 2012


       ...and I really mean it, because the one thing I believe more than any other about drilling in the Arctic:  
there is not a reason in the world to believe the claims of an oil company that they are prepared for a disaster.  

                                       Shell Oil's Kulluk oil drilling rig, with downtown Seattle in the background. By July it's expected to be at work off
                                       the north coast of Alaska. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)

Amid the tangle of towering steel, heavy cranes and overcast skies of Seattle's busy commercial shipyards, Shell Oil's massive Kulluk drilling rig is preparing to push off for the Arctic Ocean.

When it does, America's balance between energy needs and environmental fears will enter a new era. Barring unexpected court or regulatory action, by July the Kulluk will begin drilling exploratory oil wells in the frigid waters off Alaska's northern coast.

After one of the biggest environmental fights in the U.S. in decades, there is a palpable sense of all-systems-go on the dock. Shell has invested $4 billion leading up to this moment, hoping the new wells will open the tap on an undersea field that could be one of the biggest ever discovered in the U.S. The Obama administration has given all but the final go-ahead, sensing the potential of 500,000 barrels  a day of new oil flowing into the trans-Alaska pipeline.

At a nearby slip, the 301-foot Nanuq is also preparing to steam north. Its job will be to contain and clean any oil spills created by the Kulluk or its companion rig, the Discoverer. The question is whether it and several companion vessels are up to the task.

Conservationists fear that a spill in these fragile and forbidding waters, marbled with ice during the spring and fall and shrouded in darkness by winter, could send a deadly pool of oil seeping below that ice — creating a catastrophe that would make BP's Deepwater Horizon spill seem like an easy cleanup by comparison.

The Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where the Kulluk is headed, may be so remote few humans will ever see them, but they are the nurseries of the earth.

Tens of thousands of familiar American birds make epic journeys each year to the Arctic to feed and nest. The austere waters nurture food-chain building blocks for whales, walruses, seals and polar bears. Struggling Eskimo communities depend almost completely on these animals for sustenance as winter temperatures plunge to 40 degrees below zero.

Even if it doesn't spill a drop of oil, Shell's fleet will release thousands of tons of industrial carbon, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants into the air every year, adding to levels of toxic chemicals and acid in the northern waters.

"It is beyond the pale of stupidity that in the face of everything that's happening in the Arctic that we would launch a drilling program," said Jim Ayers, former director of the Exxon Valdez Trustees Council, who helped review the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for theU.S. Coast Guard.

Both Shell and environmentalists are rushing to court for last-minute legal reviews.

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