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Lack of spill prevention readiness puts a freeze on Shell's Arctic exploration

The Arctic's pristine landscape

Shell has announced this week that they have been forced to abandon exploratory drilling in Arctic for 2012. This follows the breakdown of a piece of oil recovery equipment known as the ‘containment cap’. The ‘cap’ is necessary in retrieving spilled oil for transfer to another ship in the eventuality of a spill.

So far Shell has been beset by problems in their attempts to explore the vast oil reserves that are believed to be stored beneath the Arctic seafloor. In June of this year they had to appeal to the American Environmental Protection Agency for an increase in the amount emissions allowed for both nitrogen oxides and ammonia.

Their drillship, the Noble Discoverer, was not capable of keeping emissions below the regulated threshold and so a 12 month revision was granted that allowed Shell to carry on drilling. In addition to these problems Shell’s oil-spill response ship, the Arctic Challenger took longer than anticipated to be ready for the Arctic and severe conditions and heavy ice through the summer have also hampered data collection efforts.

Now this week the MP led Environmental Audit Committee has called for a moratorium on all drilling in the Arctic amid fears that the plans in place to deal with any oil spill are insufficient. The main concerns surround the lack of infrastructure that would be needed in the Arctic to tackle a spill. In the report the committee have put forward ideas for the creation of an Arctic standard spill response as well as an Arctic environmental sanctuary.

It is likely Shell will contest the issues the committee has highlighted. Recently they made MP’s aware that if an oil spill was to occur then their spill containment equipment boasted “a combined capacity that exceeds the worst –case discharge potential of the well we are drilling”.

Shell plan to commence drilling again in the summer of 2013 but the potential for oil spills in a pristine environment will be an unresolved issue for many years to come.

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