Stop Reckless Drilling: A New Year's Resolution for Our Ocean

This aerial image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows the Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk aground off a small island
This aerial image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows the Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk aground off a small island near Kodiak Island Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013. No leak has been seen from the drilling ship that grounded off the island during a storm, officials said, as opponents criticized the growing race to explore the Arctic for energy resources. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard)

This year, let's make a New Year's resolution that protects our ocean from reckless oil drilling. We're barely two weeks into 2013, and Shell Oil has already made headlines by losing control of one of its Arctic drill rigs in the Gulf of Alaska.

In what seems like a never-ending series of missteps by Shell as they look to drill in the Arctic Ocean, their drilling rig, the Kulluk, is -- at least temporarily -- safely anchored after it ran aground near Kodiak Island in Alaska.

Interior Secretary Salazar has called for an expedited assessment of Shell's 2012 drilling season, including the grounding of the Kulluk and problems with Shell's other drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer.

It's the right move, but we must ensure that this is a public, transparent process resulting in an objective and comprehensive review. What's more, we need to ensure that the assessment addresses a fundamental issue: whether it is possible to conduct safe and responsible Arctic drilling operations at this time. For now, we're calling on Secretary Salazar to suspend drilling activities in the Arctic seas.

Shell's track record in 2012 -- and continuing into 2013 -- reveals a disturbing pattern and raises serious questions.

The Kulluk's problems began when heavy seas snapped the towline while the rig was on its way to Seattle. Crews managed to re-establish the towline connecting the vessels, but the tugboat then experienced total engine failure, leaving both adrift in rough seas and high winds.

I headed Alaska's environmental agency during the Exxon Valdez spill response, so I know how much harm can result from an industrial accident in Alaskan waters. When the Kulluk ran aground on an island near Kodiak, Alaska, photographs and video showed waves pounding the grounded drilling unit.

According to Shell, the Kulluk had up to 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel, with approximately 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid, on board. Fortunately, no spillage or serious injury to crew or responders has occurred so far, but Shell's failures jeopardized the lives of responders and threatened the surrounding environment. Imagine how different the result could have been if this same failure had taken place in the even more remote waters of the Arctic -- where Shell hopes to drill -- and not near a Coast Guard station on Kodiak Island.

In less dramatic, albeit headline-worthy news, another of Shell's Arctic drillships, the Noble Discoverer, had troubles of its own. After being towed to Seward, Alaska, a Coast Guard inspection revealed serious issues with safety and pollution prevention equipment. The problems were so severe that the Discoverer failed to meet federal and international requirements. The Coast Guard cited the Discoverer for the deficiencies and ordered the ship to remain in port until it was brought back into compliance with regulations.

As these ongoing incidents continue to unfold, they only add to other issues that arose during last summer's drilling operations -- including the near-grounding of the Discoverer near Dutch Harbor last July and a failed test of Shell's oil spill containment system that left the equipment "crushed like a beer can," in the words of a government observer.

The Arctic is an unforgiving environment, and oil companies like Shell are not in control. In light of Shell's demonstrated inability to carry out safe, responsible Arctic operations, the Interior Department's forthcoming assessment must be transparent, objective and comprehensive in scope -- including a rigorous investigation of Shell's drilling rig and oil spill response equipment failures.

Shell's pattern of failures and near-misses demands an honest and thoughtful reconsideration of the company's plans for the Arctic. We need a time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the region, protected important ecological and subsistence areas, and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water.

As we move deeper into 2013, let's resolve to make sure the good news for the ocean outweighs the bad. Whether it's in the icy waters of the Arctic -- crucial for ocean wildlife and the people who live on the coast of our Arctic seas -- or the waters near you, it's a good time to work for a safe and healthy year for our ocean.