Shell criticised for limited drill testing in Alaska

Shell apparently undertook only the most limited testing of a key piece of equipment aimed at preventing a Gulf of Mexico-style blowout during its controversial drilling in the Arctic.

Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request suggest field-testing of a containment dome took place over two hours on June 25 and 26. The dome, known as a "capping stack", would be dropped over any stricken wellhead.

Two officials from the bureau of safety and environmental enforcement (BSSE) – an arm of the interior department – were present with Shell officials at the tests in Puget Sound, Alaska, but there was no independent verification of the tests.

Shell was given permission last month to start preparatory work in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's north-west coast, but not to drill into oil reserves.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), a US group that helps federal and state employees raise the alarm on environmental protection issues, said it was shocked by the single page set of notes obtained from the government agency after it filed a federal lawsuit against the BSSE asking for all documents relating to the capping tests.

This "slim production" belied the agency's [BSSE] claim in press statements that it had conducted comprehensive testing to meet "rigorous new standards", added Peer.

"The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200ft of water without dropping it," said Kathryn Douglass, a Peer staff lawyer. "The second test showed the capping system could hold up under laboratory conditions for up to 15 minutes without crumbling. Neither result should give the American public much comfort."

Dedicated time
Shell did not contest the assumptions made by Peer about the testing but said the containment cap was only one of various pieces of equipment assembled over a long period of time to deal with any emergency.

"Approval of our Chukchi Sea Oil Spill Response Plan [Orsp] … validates the huge amount of time, technology, and resources we have dedicated to assembling an Arctic oil spill response fleet second to none in the world," said a Shell spokesperson.

"It reinforces that Shell's approach to Arctic exploration is aligned with the high standards the department of interior expects from an offshore leader. Specifically, Shell's Orsp includes the assembly of a 24/7 onsite, nearshore and onshore Arctic-class oil spill response fleet, collaboration with the US Coast Guard to test roles and responsibilities and newly engineered Arctic capping and containment systems."

Environmental campaigners Greenpeace said the limited testing of the crucial sub-sea cap displayed a "total disregard" for even the most basic safety standards.

"Such recklessness wouldn't look out of place in a stock-car race," said Ben Ayliffe, senior Arctic campaigner at Greenpeace. "The only option now is for the US government to call a halt to Shell's plans to open up the frozen north because the company is so clearly unable to operate safely in the planet's most extreme environment."

The company was granted permission to starting digging with its drill ship in the Chukchi Sea but only into the layer of ocean bottom located above oil reserves. Shell can dig 20 feet by 40 feet mud-line cellars, which will eventually hold and protect a well's blowout preventer 40 feet below the seabed. US interior secretary Ken Salazar said he had made his decision following an exhaustive review of Shell drilling rigs and safety equipment, including a capping stack: "Any approved activities will be held to highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards," he said.

Shell hopes to drill exploratory wells in both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas during this year's open-water season, which is rapidly drawing to a close. – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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