Shell takes Arctic “timeout”

Environmentalists call on oil companies to follow Shell and take a break in their rush for Arctic oil. Here, the Prirazlomnaya platform before it was towed out from Murmansk. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Royal Dutch Shell says it will pause its exploration drilling for 2013 off the coast of Alaska after last year’s drilling rig accidents. Environmentalists now call for a similar “time-out” from oil drillers in the Barents Sea.


Shell has spent some $5 billion (€3,8 billion) on its offshore Alaska operation, but is now announcing it will suspends drilling in 2013 after what the company Upstream Director America, Marvin Odum, says “will give us time to ensure the readiness of all our equipment and people following the drilling season in 2012.”

After the 2012 drilling season in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, Shell’s two rigs used in the area are sent to Asia for repairs. The rig “Kulluk” was last year damaged in in a maritime accident related to bad weather conditions. Also the other rig, “Noble Discoverer” needs repair. Only two of 12 planned wells for the 2012 season were drilled after Federal U.S. authorities prohibited Shell from completion because the company didn’t have required oil spill prevention and cleanup equipment. 

Environmental groups welcome the decision by Shell. Director of the Arctic Program with Ocean Conservancy, Andrew Hartsig, says to BarentsObserver that Shell’s move is the smartest they have made in the Arctic.

“Given Shell’s performance over the past year, their decision to pause drilling for 2013 is one of the smartest moves they’ve made regarding Arctic operations.  Shell has clearly demonstrated that the company is not prepared to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters.  We need a time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, protected important ecological and subsistence areas and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water,” says Andrew Hartsig.

Greenpeace’s USA Executive Director Phil Radford says this is the first thing Shell have done right in Alaska. “Shell was supposed to be the best of the best, but the long list of mishaps and near-disasters is a clear indication even the ‘best’ companies can’t succeed in Arctic drilling.”

Environmentalists working with petroleum safety in the Barents Region now call on oil companies to follow Shell’s example and halt drilling in European Arctic.

Sigurd Enge with the Bellona Foundation in Oslo calls on Norwegian Statoil to “cool down” its drilling plans in the Barents Sea.

“Statoils plans for the northernmost drilling in the Barents Sea is comparable to Shells activities in Alaska. Having the UN Environmental Program appeal in mind, Statoil should cool down their plans and reconsider their risk profile. There is no room for mistakes in this area,” says Sigurd Enge to BarentsObserver. 

“The fact that Shell postpones their drilling program tells me that drilling offshore in the Arctic is difficult, not only to get the permission, but to operate under these harsh conditiones,” says Enge.

Also in Murmansk, Bellona hopes the decision by Shell will be followed by Russian oil companies planning to drill the Barents- and Kara Seas. Director of Bellona Murmansk, Andrey Zolotkov, says to BarentsObserver that Shell’s decision  is a signal for all the companies to be attentive in the Arctic and not to make rushed decisions.

“It’s a good sign that Shell decided to spend more time to prepare for works in difficult Arctic conditions. In Russia we had a similar situation with Prirazlomnaya drilling platform. It left Murmansk for works in the eastern Barents Sea in August 2011, but hasn’t yet started drilling despite on its initial aggressive intentions. We can assume that one and a half year of preparation and repair works on Prirazlomnaya was not wasted,” says Zolotkov.

Last year, Charles Emmerson with the London-based think-tank Chatham House authored a report for Lloyd’s urging companies not to rush in to the Arctic, but instead step back and think carefully about the consequences. 

To BarentsObserver, Emmerson said: “If something goes wrong in the north it will impact not just one company - but an entire industry. If development is to happen sustainably, all companies have to do this right, and demonstrating this day in and day out.”