Another Stumble in the Quest for Arctic Oil

On New Year's Eve, a 266-foot oil drilling rig owned by the Shell Oil Company that had been adrift for days, ran aground off of Kodiak, Alaska. In response, this week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a review of the 2012 Arctic Ocean drilling season. Let's hope this assessment is more than just a paper exercise. The Department of the Interior allowed Shell to begin its drilling season in the Arctic last year in the first place -- a season that was plagued with problems from the start. The administration must look very carefully in the mirror to figure out what went wrong that resulted in it allowing a demonstrably unprepared company to venture into one of the most remote, inhospitable places on earth in search of oil, and it must make sure that it doesn't happen again.

In case you missed it, just after Christmas Shell's oil drilling rig, the Kulluk, came loose from its tow ship, the Aiviq, in 24-foot waves in the Gulf of Alaska. First, the tow rope connecting the rig to the Aiviq split, leaving the massive drill rig to toss helplessly in the waves, carrying 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Then the Aiviq's engines failed leaving it adrift as well, requiring a dramatic rescue by the Coast Guard in 35-foot waves the next day. Four days of drama on the high-seas put people's lives at risk. It included Coast Guard rescue of the Kulluk crew and at-sea delivery of boat parts, as well as damage to vessels assisting in the response. Eventually, the wind and waves were too much for the response effort, and rig ran aground in shallow water -- water that is also home to endangered Steller sea lions, threatened Steller's eiders, threatened southwest sea otters, and salmon.

After a week on the rocks, the rig was pulled from the shore and taken to Kiliuda Bay -- a place of refuge for wildlife and now Shell's oil drilling rig as it undergoes a damage assessment.

Thankfully no one died, and it appears that a major ecological disaster was averted.

Shell's decision to tow its drill rig from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to Seattle for repairs in the middle of the winter was bewildering. It's a time when storms are frequent and waves of the sort encountered by the Kulluk are common, and it wasn't long before the rig and the ship towing it, the Aiviq, ran into potentially life-threatening danger.

The episode was an exclamation mark on a disastrous season in the Arctic for Shell, whose track record before this latest accident would have been humorous were the safety and environmental implications not so grave. At every step, from construction to transport to testing, the company proved itself entirely unprepared for life in Alaskan waters.

The Kulluk is not even the company's first piece of drilling equipment to flirt with disaster this year. In July, Shell lost control of its drillship, the Noble Discoverer, when it dragged anchor in Dutch Harbor. In November, the Discoverer had a fire while in port and is reportedly under investigation by the Coast Guard for safety and environmental violations.

In September, Shell announced that its oil containment dome, equipment designed to cap an oil spill (and avoid what happened with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico), was damaged during testing in "lake-like" conditions in Puget Sound. A government inspector emailed that the dome "breached like a whale" and was "crushed like a beer can."

As an oil spill recovery barge, the company selected the Arctic Challenger, a ship that, despite its name, had spent the previous 20 years as a rusting hulk off the West Coast where it had become home to a colony of Caspian terns. Shell entered into a protracted dispute with the Coast Guard about what safety standards were necessary for the barge to operate in the Arctic.

The company also sought a waiver of the provisions in its Clean Air Act permit and further announced it could not actually clean up 95 percent of a worst-case spill as it had promised. To those familiar with the inhospitable conditions of the Arctic, Shell's backtracking made sense. An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean, where infrastructure is almost nonexistent and conditions are unforgiving, would be impossible to contain or clean up. Now comes news late Thursday that the EPA has issued air pollution citations for "multiple permit violations" after an inspection of the Noble Discoverer as well as Shell's own reported emissions from its drilling rigs last summer showed the company to be at odds with federal standards.

The Department of the Interior must reassess its decisions that allowed Shell to proceed with its plans to drill in such a harsh but ecologically-sensitive area of the world. If DOI is realistic about the threats posed by such an operation, it should not let Shell back into the Alaska's waters to drill. The grounding of the Kulluk demonstrated Shell's lack of appreciation for the punishing conditions in Alaska and inadequate regard for safety of responders and the environment. A considerable amount of public resources have already been, and will continue to be spent saving Shell from itself in this latest salvage and rescue episode.

Most importantly, the benefit the public will eventually see from all this investment is extremely difficult to discern. A spoiled Arctic? A continued reliance on fossil fuels? Clearly, any oil Shell finds in the Arctic is not going to lower the gas prices for us. Energy Information Administration data shows the price at the pump tracks closely the international price of oil, not the percentage of oil coming from imports. In fact, as you may have noticed, the gas prices we are all paying have remained high over the past few years, even though the amount of oil pumped in the U.S. has been going up, not down.

While remote and harsh, the Arctic is also a beautiful place that is home to vibrant communities of indigenous peoples. It is also home to spectacular wildlife, such as beluga and bowhead whales, walrus, polar bears and seals. This important place has been put at risk to allow Shell Oil to profit by drilling for oil. The American public should not be asked to bear the risks to bolster Shell's bottom line.

Shell has provided a helpful window into what a future of offshore drilling in the Arctic would look like, and it looks disastrous. With the announced review of Shell's activities, the administration has the opportunity to stand up and defend our country's natural resources. President Obama needs to put a stop to this misguided venture by big oil before the unthinkable catastrophe happens in the Arctic. There is no price tag on the Arctic and it is time to put the thought of drilling there back on the shelf.

This post was co-authored by Ted Danson and Andrew Sharpless.

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