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[1THING] Blog: Archive for September, 2012

[ Elm Ridge Exploration Company agrees to resolve Clean Air Act violations at Colorado gas plant ]

Natural gas producer will pay $207,150 penalty, implement plans to reduce emissions and conserve natural gas on the Southern Ute Reservation

(Denver, Colo. – October 1, 2012) The E.P.A. today announced a Clean Air Act settlement with Texas-based Elm Ridge Exploration Company, LLC (Elm Ridge) resolving alleged violations at the Ignacio Gas Treating Plant located on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation near Ignacio, Colorado.

The settlement requires Elm Ridge to pay $2…

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[ Happy Autumn! ]

Autumn is in full effect here in Colorado and I don’t know about you but I am sure enjoying the fall colors (and the touch of snow in the Divide!). The National Forest Foundation, Entercom Denver’s charity for the month of September, is featuring gorgeous Autumn Wallpaper on their website for your use. Have you checked them out lately?  They do such wonderful work restoring and protecting our forests.

Happy Autumn….go grab some beautiful wallpaper now and bring the colors indoors!

http://www.nationalforests.org/explore/gallery

 

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[ NBC’s ‘Revolution’: Imagining the Ultimate Blackout ]

The NBC drama Revolution, which premiered last week, is set in a world completely devoid of electrical power 15 years after a massive, mysterious blackout. People go back to traveling by horse and on foot; villages grow their own food; iPhones become useless relics.

Some critics have complained that the show is short on explanations and jumps too quickly to an inexplicable future where we still have not figured out how to get the power back on, skipping over the juicy blow-by-blow of what happens directly after huge masses of people lose all access to electricity. Revolution does offer a few tidbits from the unraveling in its first two episodes, though: planes fall out of the sky, cars lie abandoned on highways, people stranded in the cities perish, and people commit murder for food, among other grim scenes.

Take Our Poll

In the real world, we have gotten some unsettling previews of what might happen when the lights go out for a long period of time. This photo gallery of the world’s worst power outages offers a few examples of blackouts around the world caused by storms, human error and other factors. Even though most of those outages lasted just a few days or less, they still drive home the mass misery that occurs when millions are left stranded in the dark. Most prominently this year, more than 600 million people in India lost power for two days in July (see photos from the blackout and an analysis of the country’s power situation).  A month earlier in the U.S. Northeast, where transmission lines are particularly burdened, a powerful derecho system of thunderstorms knocked out electricity to more than 4 million.

Aside from inflicting huge costs and disruptions that range from inconvenient to life-threatening, blackouts force us to recognize the many ways we are dependent on reliable electricity from the grid, and contemplate even for just a few hours what life might be like for the 1.4 billion people worldwide who do not have it. Do you worry about the stability of the electricity grid in your country? How would you fare in a long-term blackout? Weigh in on the poll above and in the comments.

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[ As Iraq’s Oil Boom Progresses, So Does Gas Flaring ]

Iraq’s oil production reached 3.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) this past August – nearly 1 mbpd more than it was a year ago. That growth is set to continue: Iraq, home to the world’s fourth largest proven petroleum reserves, plans to ramp up production to 10 mbpd in six years. Given that 95 percent of Iraq’s state revenue comes from oil, that industry is key to the nation’s post-war rebuilding.

However, the flip side of Iraq’s growing oil output has been a nearly uncontrolled burning of “associated gas,” which is raw natural gas released as a by-product of petroleum extraction. Natural gas is often found in oil wells, where it is either dissolved in crude oil or exists separately in a form of a cap on top of the oil.

Unless it can be captured and used for commercial purposes, associated gas is burned off upon reaching an oil well surface, or it can be directly vented into the atmosphere without burning. Because methane is a key component of associated gas, venting of gas deposits large volumes of methane into the atmosphere, while burning it releases carbon dioxide. Thus, gas flaring is a source of greenhouse emissions and also carries the cost of wasting a valuable energy resource and degrading air quality.

Iraq currently ranks among the world’s top five flaring countries, according to the World Bank. As the second largest producer of oil in OPEC, Iraq flared around 9 billion cubic meters of associated gas in 2011. According to some estimates, the southern oil fields of Rumaila, West Qurna and Zubair account for over 25 million cubic meters of gas per day.

The World Bank says that the gas flared in Iraq, which amounts to $5 million per day in lost energy, would be sufficient to cover all of the country’s electricity demand. Faced with electricity supplies available only a few hours a day and with shortages of clean cooking fuels, Iraq’s flaring of associated gas is a colossal waste of a precious resource. In fact, flared gas would be sufficient to cover all of Iraq’s electricity demand.

The practice of burning gas is a matter not only of energy use, but also of public health and the environment. Residents who live near oil fields have complained of asthma, irritated skin and other problems.  Aside from methane, flaring gas produces nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and other emissions that can affect vegetation and watershed.

The natural gas sector in Iraq lags behind its well-developed oil industry and, thus far, attempts to capture associated gas have been limited. Last year, Iraq’s Basrah Gas signed a landmark agreement with Royal Dutch Shell* and Mitsubishi to capture associated natural gas from southern oilfields and use it to fuel power stations and as feedstock for the petrochemical industry of this war-torn nation. The project aims to harness 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas by 2017.

This amount is just a small fraction of the gas flared in Iraq last year, however, and Iraq’s oil production stands to increase dramatically over the next two decades. With a glut of natural gas keeping prices down, Iraq has limited incentive to focus on the potential of capturing and exporting gas while its focus is on growing oil production. As Robert Lesnick of the World Bank has noted, “The savings from shifting from liquid fuels to gas for Iraq’s power generation is estimated at several billion dollars per year, but this benefit is less than one week’s increase in revenues from targeted incremental crude oil sales.”

According to the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership, Iraq has made flare reduction a priority in its energy policy and has launched a gas pricing study. Already, potential customers are waiting: Turkey and Jordan have reportedly expressed interest in gas imports from Iraq. It remains to be seen whether these developments will be enough to significantly reduce the amount of wasted natural gas now pouring into Iraq’s air.

*Shell is sponsor of The Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

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[ Charting a Path to More Efficient Cars ]

No less an authority than the International Energy Agency says the world could cut the fuel used for road transport in half over the next 40 years. The question is whether anyone is willing to do the work needed to get there.

Fully one-fifth of all energy use worldwide is for transportation, and transportation is primarily about oil. In fact the IEA calculates almost all the projected growth in petroleum use in the world is going to come from transportation.

(Related Photos: “Cars That Fired Our Love-Hate Relationship With Fuel“)

The good news, according to a pair of new reports from the IEA, is that the technology needed to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles is already available and cost-effective. Most developed nations and China already have fuel efficiency standards in place as well. Under the Obama administration, the United States has raised fuel efficiency standards, but the new regulations have drawn fire from Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who has called them “extreme,” and from auto dealers who worry they will raise car prices and discourage potential buyers. Overall, the United States has been a laggard on fuel standards over the years, but in some specific areas, our standards are higher than anywhere else).

The bad news, however, is in the developing world. Most developing nations are lagging behind in fuel efficiency – and this is where energy use is going to explode in the next few decades. Since upgrading existing vehicles is nearly impossible, the IEA argues that governments should focus on changing efficiency in new vehicles. But the IEA says that means getting new government policies in place, ideally within the next five or ten years, including:

  • requiring vehicles to be labeled on their fuel economy and carbon emissions;
  • setting fuel economy and carbon emission standards;
  • and using tax incentives, vehicle taxes and fuel taxes to encourage efficiency.

Again, most industrialized nations, including the United States, already have these things in place (whether they could be done better is another story). Many developing nations can’t or don’t enforce the rules they do have.

But this brings us back to the fundamental question surrounding all energy policy: are societies willing to make choices, and accept the inevitable tradeoffs that come with them?

In the U.S., for example, we’ve been willing to do some things: raise efficiency standards and provide tax credits for electric vehicles, although these changes have been controversial, and there are many calls for their repeal. Beyond this,  any proposal to increase gas taxes, or raise the cost of driving, has proved to be a non-starter. The specific patterns of what’s politically acceptable and what’s not are going to be different from country to country. In nearly every case, as societies grow and become more fuel-hungry, there are going to be different deal-breakers.

(Related Photos: “Rare Look Inside Automakers’ Drive for 55 MPG“)

That’s because in nearly every case, on nearly every energy issue, there are going to be tradeoffs. Navigating those tradeoffs is the fundamental political challenge surrounding energy policy worldwide. And unless the world gets better at making those tradeoffs, we’re staying stuck in first gear.

 

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[ NG Explorer Jennifer Burney on Solar, Snakes and the Future of Energy ]

Jennifer Burney, named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2011, continues her work on agricultural solutions for struggling farmers. She observes, for example, that “as great as local organic food may be in my own kitchen, we’ll never feed the whole world that way. Like it or not, ‘Big Agriculture’ is why we’ve been able to sustain a hungry planet; and thanks to investments in technology, significant climate impact has been mitigated.” One key contribution she made was introducing solar irrigation to farmers in Benin, Africa. The organization that she worked with, Solar Electric Light Fund, is also a grantee of the Great Energy Challenge.

What project are you working on now?
I’m working on a few different things. First, I’m looking at different kinds of irrigation systems for smallholder farmers in dry climates around the world. Do they help farmers and their families earn income and escape poverty permanently? Do they help communities adapt to climate change? Can these systems be environmentally sustainable? Second, I’m looking at the ways air pollution affects our ability to grow food and trying to quantify the agricultural benefits of cleaning up our air. Finally, I’m working to understand and quantify all the different ways energy is used in food production, processing, and consumption. I’m interested in helping chart a realistic pathway for greening the global food system.

(Related Story: “Solar Energy Brings Food, Water, and Light to West Africa“)

Burney explains more about her work on solar irrigation in Africa:

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
I am always very pleasantly surprised by the universality of human experience. I love spending time with people whose day-to-day lives are very different from mine and realizing very quickly that we share many of the same motivations, emotions, and concerns. I have always loved travel for this reason, but it has become so much more powerful for me since becoming a parent. The love that parents have for their children; the desire to protect and shepherd them into a fulfilling life — these forces know no cultural barriers.

On a more mundane note, the biggest physical surprises for me always seem to involve snakes. Snakes like to hide in drip irrigation tubes, in latrines, in wells, and under the rocks I happen to be sitting on. I don’t really like being up close and personal with them, (Apologies to all the herpetologists in the National Geographic explorers’ family!) but they always seem to find me, even on the shortest little hikes. I realized recently that I was born in the year of the snake, so I’ve started trying to think of these critters as my spirit animal.

Have you ever been lost? How did you get found?
I’ve wandered off course a few times when backpacking, but never anything too terrible. Phew!

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
Tough question! There are so many with incredible day-to-day lives and deeply moving stories. For example, I’m particularly inspired by the work my fellow emerging explorer classmates, Sasha Kramer and Aziz Abu Sarah are doing. I’d love to tag along with them for any amount of time. If I were really going to trade places with someone permanently, it’d have to be Mike Fay. I started reading about him in college and I’ve been moved by everything he’s done ever since.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
Unfortunately, I fear that climate change is going to make our world look very different in a hundred years. Then the National Geographic crew will be exploring previously inaccessible and/or newly extreme regions right here on earth. On a more positive note, I think there will be radically new types of energy generation, storage, and transmission; dramatic changes in our roles with the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles; and all sorts of new technologies that make the world a more intimate place and help promote peace and well-being for all. National Geographic will be leading the way in exploring and publicizing these innovations.

Sketch by Burney of herself checking corn and taking notes in the field.

What one item do you always have with you?
I don’t have any one “signature” item, but I *usually* have sunscreen, sunglasses, and water close at hand. Boring, I know, but always useful.

What are you reading?
Mr. G, by Alan Lightman.

What is your favorite food?
Burrito. Also, I’m a native New Mexican, so tend to believe that green chili makes everything taste better.

What are you listening to?
I love all music, but recently have been alternating bluegrass and classical. In fact, I heard the Punch Brothers perform an adaptation of one of the Brandenburg concertos for mandolin, banjo, etc., and I thought it was just about the greatest musical synergy ever.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
Hang in there…in 10-15 years, being a nerd will be cool.

If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
I’d stick some in my kids’ college savings accounts, buy some land on the east side of the Sierras, take the whole family to West Africa to visit friends and colleagues there, buy tickets to the next few World Cups/Women’s World Cups, and give the rest to those in need.

If you were a baseball player, and you came up to bat, what song would be played as your “signature song”?
Something by Bruce Springsteen? I love the Boss, and it seems like it’d fit at a baseball game! I really like the album he did of all the old Pete Seeger songs, so I could imagine a whole stadium drinking beer, basking in the sun, and rocking out to something like “Pay Me My Money Down.” That being said, in my own head, it’d be something more like the soundtrack to the Motorcycle Diaries playing. That music gets you both focused and fired up!

Listen to part of the soundtrack from the Motorcycle Diaries:

Do you have a hidden talent?
I play the violin, which a lot of folks in my day-to-day life don’t know about.

What is your favorite National Geographic photo?
Impossible to choose! In general I love all NG pictures involving deserts. This must be because I’m a child of the desert. I remember loving the photos in issues about the Sahel and the drying of the American Southwest a few years back. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a terrible photographer, so I really appreciate the ability to wordlessly capture the delicate balance of life in water-constrained areas.

What is your favorite National Geographic magazine or news article?
Again, so hard to choose! Perhaps the article and set of aerial shots from the 2005 Africa issue? I also loved the soccer issue before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Soccer’s another one of those things that really unites people around the world.

If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
This is probably cliché, but any dinosaur. How amazing would that be?

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[ Report: The Costs of Fracking ]

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Released by:

Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center

Executive Summary

Over the past decade, the oil and gas industry has fused two technologies—hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—to unlock new supplies of fossil fuels in underground rock formations across the United States. “Fracking” has spread rapidly, leaving a trail of contaminated water, polluted air, and marred landscapes in its wake. In fact, a growing body of data indicates that fracking is an environmental and public health disaster in the making.

However, the true toll of fracking does not end there. Fracking’s negative impacts on our environment and health come with heavy “dollars and cents” costs as well. In this report, we document those costs—rang- ing from cleaning up contaminated water to repairing ruined roads and beyond. Many of these costs are likely to be borne by the public, rather than the oil and gas industry. As with the damage done by previous extractive booms, the public may experience these costs for decades to come.

The case against fracking is compelling based on its damage to the environment and our health alone. To the extent that fracking does take place, the least the public can expect is for the oil and gas industry to be held accountable for the damage it causes. Such accountability must include up-front financial assurances sufficient to ensure that the harms caused by fracking are fully redressed.

Fracking damages the environment, threatens public health, and affects communities in ways that can impose a multitude of costs:

 

  • Drinking water contamination – Fracking brings with it the potential for spills, blowouts and well failures that contaminate groundwater supplies.
  • Health problems – Toxic substances in fracking fluid and wastewater—as well as air pollution from trucks, equipment and the wells themselves—have been linked to a variety of negative health effects.
  • Natural resources impacts – Fracking converts rural and natural areas into industrial zones, replacing forest and farm land with well pads, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure, and damaging precious natural resources.
  • Impacts on public infrastructure and services – Fracking strains infrastructure and public services and imposes cleanup costs that can fall on taxpayers.
  • Broader economic impacts – Fracking can undercut the long-term economic prospects of areas where it takes place. A 2008 study found that Western counties that have relied on fossil fuel extraction are doing worse economically compared with peer communities and are less well-prepared for growth in the future.

 

The environmental, health and community impacts of fracking are severe and unacceptable. Yet the dirty drilling practice continues at thousands of sites across the nation. This report recommends that wherever fracking does occur, local, state and federal governments should at least comprehensively restrict and regulate fracking to reduce its environmental, health and community impacts as much as possible. They should also ensure up-front financial accountability by requiring oil and gas companies to post dramatically higher bonds that reflect the true costs of fracking.

The Price Tag of Dirty Drilling's Environmental Damage

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[ The Costs of Fracking: Environment Colorado Documents the Dollars Drained by Dirty Drilling ]

For Immediate Release

Denver, CO: Firing a new salvo in the ongoing debate over the gas drilling practice known as fracking, Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center released a report today documenting a wide range of dollars and cents costs imposed by dirty drilling. As documented in The Cost of Fracking, fracking creates millions of dollars of costs related to everything from air pollution to ruined roads to contaminated property.

“Fracking’s environmental damage is bad enough, but it turns out that this dirty drilling imposes heavy dollar and cents costs as well,” said Jeanne Bassett, senior associate for Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center. “And in many cases, the public will be left holding the bag for those costs.”

While the report documents a wide range of costs imposed by fracking, Environment Colorado is particularly concerned about what drinking water contamination would mean for Colorado:
Fracking operations contaminate drinking water sources in many ways – from spills to leaking waste pits to methane from drilling itself.

Waste from fracking operations has contaminated drinking water sources in the West. In just one case of groundwater contamination in Garfield County, Colorado, cleanup costs ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In addition to water cleanup costs, the report shows that fracking damage exacts other tolls on communities – from road repairs to health costs to emergency response. The report includes the following examples of such costs:

  • Health: In Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale region, air pollution from fracking operations impose health costs estimated at $9.8 million in one year. In Texas’ Barnett Shale region, these costs reach $270,000 per day during the summer smog season.
  • Roads to Ruin: With fracking operations requiring thousands of trips by trucks and heavy machinery, a Texas task force approved $40 million in funding for road repairs in the Barnett Shale region.

“There are documented studies of chemical pollution in water and air related to fracking activities. So if I lived near a fracking site and had young children, I would move,” said Laird Cagan, MD, practicing internist, resident of Longmont, and immediate past president of the Boulder County Medical Society.

Moreover, as with previous extractive booms, fracking will impose long-term costs as well. As noted in the report, the coal boom in Appalachia left Pennsylvania with an estimated $5 billion cost for cleaning up acid mine drainage. There is also the impact on property values.

“Having been in the mortgage business for 11 years I am now seeing for the first time people applying for home loans and expressing concern about the appraisal value in neighborhoods where fracking is occurring. So this is impacting both consumers who want to refinance their homes or are looking at moving, and seeing that fracking in their neighborhood could have a huge impact on their property value,” said Brett Holland, owner of Investar Mortgage and resident of Windsor Colorado.

The Costs of Fracking report comes as the city of Longmont is considering a ban on the dirty drilling practice. Citizens of Longmont, having grave concerns about the adequacy of the City of Longmont’s proposed regulation of oil and gas development in the community, prepared a city charter amendment that prohibits hydraulic fracturing (fracking) within the city’s limits. It also bans injection wells and open pits.

Well over 8,000 Longmont voters signed the charter petition to place the matter before the electorate on November 6th. “Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, the sponsoring organization, is a group of ordinary citizens – parents, teachers, business people, medical providers, retirees – who are committed to preserving their health, safety, well-being and property values,” said Michael Bellmont, a member of Our Longmont.

The State of Colorado has filed suit against the City of Longmont for its limited regulations. “Both the State of Colorado and the oil and gas industry want to be able to drill near our homes, our schools, our parks and bodies of water, anywhere they desire, without concern for our health, safety and property values. They are bullying Longmont and its citizens for exercising our rights as guaranteed in the Colorado Constitution,” said Kaye Fissinger, also a member of Our Longmont.

“Like coal and oil booms before it, fracking creates the illusion of prosperity during the boom. But in the end, communities are stuck with a slew of costs – from property losses to ruined roads and health costs. That is why it is particularly important to allow communities to decide at the local level whether they want these dirty drilling practices in their back yard,” said Bassett.

However, to the extent that fracking is continuing at thousands of sites across Colorado, the report also recommends dramatically stepped-up bonding requirements and other financial assurances that match the full scope of fracking’s immediate and long-term costs.

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Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center is a state-wide environmental organization, working to protect clean air, clean water and open space.

Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center

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[ MIT Magnets Could Pull Offshore Oil Spills From Water ]

Over two years later, the Gulf Coast is still struggling to recover from the 2010 BP oil spill. Perhaps the only silver lining to this deadly event was the fact that it revealed to the world just how unprepared oil companies are to prevent, contain, and clean up offshore spills. Faced with this ugly truth, scientists and inventors have been working to advance spill clean up technologies, so that the next time a spill occurs (and there will be a next time) we have something better than boom and dispersant to throw at it.

MIT has lead the charge in this quest for new clean up technologies. Just months after the BP oil spill began, they unveiled the Seaswarm, an autonomous robot that can navigate the surface of the ocean to collect surface oil and process it on site. Now, they’ve come up with an even simpler solution: a method for separating oil from water using magnets.

We all know that oil and water don’t mix. That’s why it was so easy to see the sheen of BP’s crude oil floating on the surface of the water during and after the spill. Although it’s easy to see the oil, getting it out of the water is another problem. Skimming and burning are two common methods, but they’re inefficient, and make it impossible to recover any of the oil.

MIT’s new technique would mix water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles into the oil plume, then utilize a magnet to simply lift the oil out of the water. According to a recent release, the researchers envision that the process could take place aboard an oil-recovery vessel, to prevent the nanoparticles from contaminating the environment. Afterward, the nanoparticles could be magnetically removed from the oil and reused. It’s believed that this ability to recover and reuse the oil would offset much of the cost of cleanup, making companies like BP more willing to foot the bill for their mistakes.

“This oil-spill problem has not really been worked on intensively that I know of, and of course it’s a big problem,” said Ronald Rosensweig, a former Exxon researcher and a pioneer in the study of ferrofluids who wrote the field’s first textbook. “You could think of separating oil from water by centrifuging or something like that, but in a lot of cases, the fluids are pretty much equal in density: Some of the oil sinks, some of it floats, and a lot of it is in between. The magnetic hook could, hopefully, make separation faster and better.”

— Beth Buczynski

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.

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[ Shell’s Arctic Plan Curtailed by Dome Damage ]

The aptly named Arctic Challenger—Shell’s* trouble-plagued oil spill recovery barge—has once again demonstrated how challenging drilling for oil in the Arctic can be in a post-Deepwater-Horizon world.

(Related: “Is Another Deepwater Horizon Disaster Inevitable?“)

The barge, which underwent a multi-million-dollar facelift in a Bellingham, Washington, shipyard, was retrofitted to serve as the flagship of Shell’s “state of the art” Arctic containment system. Yet during the first test of the oil spill recovery dome in Puget Sound on Saturday night, the barge crew managed to ding up the dome as they attempted to place it over a mock runaway well—ending any hope that Shell would drill into potential pay dirt on any of its Arctic leases this year.

Instead, the company says it will drill as many “top-holes” as it can before sea ice sets in by late October, laying the groundwork for the 2013 drilling season.

“It’s a disappointment that this particular system is not ready yet,” Marvin E. Odum, the president of Shell Oil, told the New York Times. “We’ve made the call that we are better off not drilling in hydrocarbons this year.”

(Related: “Pictures: Four New Offshore Drilling Frontiers“)

It is just the latest in a series of mishaps that have hampered Shell’s drilling efforts and left many critics doubting if the company is ready to drill in one of the harshest—and most pristine—environments on the planet. Earlier this summer, Shell’s 514-foot (157-meter) Liberian-registered drill ship, Noble Discoverer, drug its anchor during a blow in Dutch Harbor and drifted close to shore in front of the Royal Aleutian Hotel. The ship was undamaged and on September 9,  began drilling in the Burger Prospect some 50 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea. A day later, however, it had to pull out and abandon the site to avoid an ice floe.

(Related: “Ice-Breaking: U.S. Oil Drilling Starts,While Nations Mull Changed Arctic“)

The 38-year-old Arctic Challenger—a former barge with so much new superstructure it now looks a bit like a floating casino with a crane— has been beset with electrical and safety equipment issues and delayed Shell’s advance into the Arctic because it did not  pass U.S. Coast Guard inspection. Towed by ocean tugs, the barge houses 72 workers, the containment dome, as well as other oil spill response equipment. It’s supposed to have enough capacity to store spilled oil for 24 hours until Shell’s oil spill tanker reaches any spill site. It was a voluntary piece of equipment offered by Shell, but as it is part of the drilling permit and plan,  Shell has not been allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones before it is on-station off Barrow. It remains in a repair dock in Bellingham, Washington, awaiting Coast Guard approval.

At a conference in Alaska a few weeks ago, Shell’s vice president for Alaska, Peter Slaiby, stressed that the Challenger was a redundant piece of equipment—a fourth line of defense against a blow-out that would only come into play after drilling mud, a beefed-up Blow-Out-Preventer, and a ready-made capping stack that was already on site had all failed. (It was a capping stack that eventually closed down BP’s runaway Macondo well in 2010, but it had to be built on the fly as oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico; Shell agreed to have a stack ready in the Arctic, and it is currently on a ship stationed between the Beaufort and Chukchi drill sites.)

(Related Quiz: “How Much Do You Know About the Gulf Oil Spill?“)

But the details emerging about the failed containment dome test do little to bolster Shell’s assurances. According to anonymous sources who spoke to the L.A. Times, the dome was damaged when Shell workers attempted to lower it over weights that had been dropped to the sea floor to simulate the site of a runaway well. According to the L.A. Times, one of the dome’s eight winches stuck on the way down. When a min-sub, known in the industry as Remotely Operated Vehicle, or ROV, was sent down to inspect the problem, it became entangled in the dome’s cables and eventually sank. Divers were then dispatched to recover the inoperable dome.

Shell’s statement on the incident emphasized the care it was taking in proving its gear (“We will not conduct any operation until we are satisfied that we are fully prepared to do it safely,” it said.)

But the company’s critics were quick to pounce on the latest setback. “This incident as well as others over the summer show that Shell is clearly not prepared to go forward in a safe way,” says Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska Project for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, one of three environmental groups challenging Shell’s air permit, drilling permit and oil spill response plan in court. “If Shell has such an incident in the calm waters of Puget Sound, what happens when one of those arctic storms whips up?”

The ultimate lesson? The Arctic gives up its treasures slowly.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

 

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