Washington – "Crucial" safety data on response to an offshore oil rig blowout in icy Arctic waters has not been released as required by law, according to a federal suit filed today by PEER. The unreleased testing data would shed some light on whether there could be a repeat of the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico from the first wells to be drilled this summer on the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf.
Royal Dutch Shell has received permission to drill as many as five exploratory wells in Arctic waters –two in the Beaufort Sea and three in the Chukchi Sea — this summer. However, time is running out in the short weather window available to Shell before sea ice covers the region again. The oil company is frantically scrambling to sink at least one well in coming weeks.
In a June 27, 2012 press release, the Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement (BSSE is an arm of the Interior Department, formerly within the Minerals Management Service) declared that Shell had passed "comprehensive testing" on its "Arctic-ready capping stack system." BSSE described the capping system as a "key piece of safety equipment" needed to prevent a recurrence of the BP debacle in the Gulf and that its "crucial" tests were "leaving nothing to chance."
Following the BSSE press release, Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member who is an expert in oil spill response, requested the actual Shell cap test data under the Freedom of Information Act. BSSE has not produced the data within the statutory time limits and today PEER, representing Professor Steiner, filed a lawsuit to compel release of the testing results.
“The Department of Interior and Shell say that the capping stack tests were rigorous and proved the equipment will work to stop a wellhead blowout. But the public deserves to see the test results to judge whether the testing was indeed rigorous, and whether the capping stack actually works. That DOI is delaying release of the results, and Shell is poised to begin drilling its first Arctic Ocean wells within days, underscores the urgency here. This is why we needed to sue to obtain the results,” Steiner said.
This February, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled "Interior Has Strengthened Its Oversight of Subsea Well Containment, but Should Improve Its Documentation." The report found that Interior had no definitive process for insuring both the availability and the reliability of blowout prevention and response equipment. The report also stressed the "unique risks" of Arctic offshore drilling, including floating ice, scouring ice (shearing along the ocean floor) and lack of any emergency infrastructure in the frigid, remote seas.
"Given its track record, Interior cannot just say ‘Trust us, we have this covered,’ stated PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed the legal action in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. "Complete transparency on this paramount issue is essential for public confidence that the federal government is not again accommodating oil companies at the expense of protecting irreplaceable public resources."
PEER has also urged that Interior require redundant back-up systems as the Canadians do to prevent the nightmare scenario of a runaway spill under impenetrable sea ice from a blowout at the end of the short drilling season. Interior has rejected multiple response requirements, putting all of its proverbial eggs in the single capping stack system now being towed to the Arctic.