Shell Arctic Offshore Safety Data Still Under Wraps
Specifics Bolstering President’s Assurance Cannot Be Produced Until After Drilling
Washington, DC — This week on his Alaska tour, President Obama touted strict safety standards for Royal Dutch Shell drilling in the Alaska’s remote Chukchi Sea. But his administration has been unable to supply any data detailing the basis for this assurance and now wants another three month delay, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which is currently waging a federal suit to obtain information spelling out the safety and reliability safeguards in place. Administration lawyers are seeking more time, contending they need permission from Shell to release roughly 5,000 responsive records which could not be seen until long after this year’s drilling season closes at the end of this month.
President Obama has sought to rebut critics of his approval of opening sensitive and turbulent Arctic waters to oil and gas exploration by stating “The bottom line is, safety has been and will continue to be my administration’s top priority when it comes to oil and gas exploration off America’s precious coasts” adding “my administration has worked to make sure that our oil exploration conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible, with requirements specifically tailored to the risks of drilling off Alaska.” In early June, PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the data supporting his claim of applying “the highest standards possible” but did not receive a response. On July 30, PEER sued the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement for its failure to release any documents.
Also this week, an Assistant U.S. Attorney responding to the PEER FOIA lawsuit indicated that it would take as much as another 90 days to allow Shell to review what information it would consent to release and what it would seek to withhold as a trade secret.
“It appears that the Obama administration has outsourced offshore safety to Shell,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, suggesting that the Obama administration never prepared for the possible release of the records. “After the BP debacle in the Gulf, this administration is again asking the public with a straight face for trust while denying them the ability to verify.”
While Shell may have what it considers confidential business information in some of the equipment specifications, there is no plausible claim with respect to much of the data sought by PEER, including –
- Results of all safety drills and testing. Documents uncovered last week indicate Shell flunked some of the initial fire safety and anti-pollution drills supervised by the U.S. Coast Guard;
- Documents confirming third-party engineer certification of well design plans and blowout prevention controls; and
- The whistleblower protections in place to ensure that workers for Shell, its contractors and subcontractors have safe channels for reporting problems as they arise.
“Shell’s present Chukchi Sea drilling project is the most controversial offshore drilling project in history. Yet astonishingly, the federal government still cannot or will not release the most basic documents on project safety to the public,” said Rick Steiner, an expert in oil spill prevention and response, retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member. “The American public has every reason to be nervous about this project, as well as the utter lack of transparency by either industry or the government.”
PEER has been urging the Obama administration to routinely make all of this information available on agency websites well in advance of commencement of operations.