By TENNILLE TRACY and BEN LEFEBVRE
WASHINGTON -- An accident involving Royal Dutch Shell's
drilling rig in the Gulf of Alaska is giving fresh ammunition
to environmental groups to call for a suspension of drilling
and exploration permits in the Arctic Ocean.
Several environmental groups, including the
influential Natural Resources Defense Council, say they plan to
ask the Obama administration in coming days to put a formal
hold on permits in the region.
The request comes after a drilling rig owned by Shell broke
free of a tug boat late last week and then wedged itself on
rocks off Sitkalidak Island. Environmental groups, which have
long opposed drilling in the Arctic, say the accident
demonstrates how risky it is for oil companies to operate in
the icy, foggy and often stormy conditions near Alaska.
Such a request, if granted, could impact Shell and other oil
companies' plans to return to the Arctic this summer. Shell has
already received approval for multiyear exploration plans, but
it still needs a few permits before it can continue operating
in the region.
"Shell is not Arctic ready," said Chuck Clusen, a director
at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The risks are too
big to get this wrong."
Shell's exploratory wells off Alaska's northern coast,
started last year, were the first such operations in US Arctic
waters in more than two decades.
"When flawless execution does not happen, you learn from it,
and we will," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said. "In the years
to come, we look forward to adding to our positive history
Shell's $5 billion Arctic drilling program has been plagued
by mishaps nearly from the start. Lingering ice prevented the
company from dispatching its two rigs to the region for months.
Once in Alaska, one rig used by Shell, Nobel Corp.'s
Discoverer, nearly ran aground in July after becoming unmoored
while in port. Equipment failures on the rigs have also been a
The top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee,
Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, sent a letter to Shell and the
US Coast Guard on Thursday seeking information on Shell's
contingency plans for accidents in the Arctic.
The accident involving Shell's Kulluk rig "raises serious
questions about the company's ability to conduct these
operations safely and in a way that protects the environment," Markey said in a
letter to the Coast Guard.
The Kulluk drilled exploratory wells in the Arctic until
October, normally when inclement weather marks the end of the
drilling season. The rig began drifting Friday after a tug boat
pulling it to Seattle for maintenance lost an engine.
Other tug boats arrived Sunday to help it continue the
voyage, but by the next day 35- to 45-foot seas and 50-knot
winds caused the tow cables to fall away and sent the rig
adrift. The Kulluk plowed into the island shortly before New
A salvage crew sent by the Coast Guard onto the rig
Wednesday evening found it to be in stable condition with no
fuel leaking from its hull. The Kulluk contains more than
150,000 gallons of diesel and lubricants used in its drilling
Shell has said that the accident was a transportation issue
and didn't reflect on the overall safety of drilling in the
region. The rig's design also makes it resistant to punctures
that would lead to leaks, the company said.
"As demonstrated by the strength and integrity of the
Kulluk, we could easily wait the five or six days for help
needed to get an in-Arctic response," a Shell spokesperson said
Thursday on Twitter.
The Interior Department, which oversees offshore oil
drilling, wasn't available for immediate comment.
Dow Jones Newswires