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Climate Progress

Joe Romm is a Fellow at American Progress and is the editor of Climate Progress, which New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called "the indispensable…

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Shell Confirm that they Cannot Recover 95% of an Arctic Oil Spill, Only Find it

As Shell’s rigs head toward the Arctic to exploit melting sea ice to drill for more oil, the company took a small step this weekend in clarifying what would happen in an oil spill during the company’s planned Arctic drilling operations this summer.

Despite the oil industry’s spin, experts know it is impossible to recover more than a small fraction of a major marine oil spill, as retired Coast Guard Admiral Roger Rufe told NPR: “But once oil is in the water, it’s a mess. And we’ve never proven anywhere in the world — let alone in the ice — that we’re very good at picking up more than 3 or 5 or 10 percent of the oil once it’s in the water.”

So how is it possible, according to the New York Times, that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar “said he believed the company’s claims that it could collect at least 90 percent of any oil spilled in the event of a well blowout.” These sorts of claims have raised eyebrows among advocates and scientists who study offshore oil drilling — they aren’t just unbelievable, they’re laughably, outrageously impossible. NPR’s Richard Harris cuts through Shell’s spin, and explains what these numbers really mean:

“They have a miniscule number of boats compared to what was available in the Gulf of Mexico,” [Peter Van Tuyn, and environmental lawyer in Anchorage] says, and in the Gulf, “they didn’t have to deal with the extreme weather conditions that we’ve got in the Arctic.” High winds are the norm, and sea ice is always a possible hazard, “and yet they [Shell] claim they can collect as much as 95 percent.”

Merrell says the company has made no such claim. Instead, he says, the oil company’s plan is to confront 95 percent of the oil out in the open water, before it comes ashore. That doesn’t mean responders can collect what they encounter.

“Because the on-scene conditions can be so variable, it would be rather ridiculous of us to make any kind of performance guarantee,” Merrell says.

While discussing the same issue with the Associated Press, Shell PR folks take another word out for a spin, and even try to blame “opposition groups” for this confusion:

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said opposition groups are purposely mischaracterizing Shell’s oil spill response plan. The plan does not claim Shell can clean up 90 percent of an oil spill, he said.

“We say in our plan we expect to ‘encounter’ 90 percent of any discharge on site — very close to the drilling rig,” he said. “We expect to encounter 5 percent near-shore between the drilling rig and the coast. And we expect to encounter another 5 percent on shore. We never make claims about the percent we could actually recover, because conditions vary, of course.”

Where Shell plans to drill in the Arctic, those conditions include 20 foot swells, hurricane force winds, sea ice, and months of total darkness, and all without deep water ports or other infrastructure needed to mount a major oil spill response. But let’s put that aside for a moment, to make sure we’re not mischaracterizing here: Shell expects to “encounter” or “confront” 90% of the spilled oil and another 5% the company plans to — rendezvous? — with elsewhere in the ocean, while the remaining 5% Shell might — happen upon? — on shore. How much of that oil might be recovered, collected, or, you know, removed from the environment? Well, Shell says conditions vary, so making a performance guarantee would be rather ridiculous.

In the relatively calm conditions of the Gulf of Mexico, with thousands of response vessels, only a small fraction was recovered from the BP oil disaster. Despite shameful efforts to spin its announcement, a government report found that 4% of the oil was skimmed, and another 6% was burned. And as oil spill expert Rick Steiner observes, even those estimates might be too high, and burning oil isn’t really removing it from the environment: “It either went into the air as atmospheric emissions, and some of that is pretty toxic stuff, or there’s a residue from burning crude that sinks to the ocean floor, sometimes in big thick mats.”

Exxon Valdez Spill in Alaska
Exxon Valdez oil in 2012. Photo courtesy of David Janka, taken on May 24, 2012 on Eleanor Island, Prince William Sound, Alaska.

And the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound? Steiner explains in “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill a Cautionary Tale for Arctic Ocean Drilling:

And today, 23 years later, most of the fish and wildlife populations and habitats injured by the spill have yet to fully recover, and there is still residual, toxic oil in beach sediments. It is becoming evident that the injured Alaska coastal ecosystem may never fully recover from the Exxon Valdez spill.”

What of the promised “state-of-the-art spill response”? Despite a three-year, $2 billion effort by Exxon, the response was a spectacular failure, recovering less than 7 percent of the spilled oil.

Oil that Exxon might have “encountered” decades ago, still remains today, as do the impacts to the ecosystem and the wildlife and communities that depend upon it.

By. Joe Smyth

Joe Smyth is a Media Officer with Greenpeace.

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Leave a comment
  • Mathew McGonigal on July 05 2012 said:
    Oil is a natural substance, it's perfectly harmless. Sea birds naturally flock to it as a natural form of feather conditioner. Just look how shiny they are after they've bathed in it.
  • Mel Tisdale on July 06 2012 said:
    The fossil fuel industry, in all its flavours, is on the way down. The problem is that it seems hell bent on doing as much damage as it can while it falls. Bob Dylan once wrote: "Money doesn't talk, it swears" and it applies today as much as it did then. What, other than money, could possibly drive the oil industry to even attempt drilling for oil in such an inhospitable environment as the Arctic? An environment where any oil spill is guaranteed to do more harm than it would anywhere else in the world.

    It seems to me that the whole planet is currently going through a major reset operation. We might just as well hit the energy industry’s reset button now while we are at it rather than later when the reset will be more painful. Let’s face it, we know that we are not going to hit our (politcally chosen) climate change targets with a 'business as usual' scenario, so we are going to have to make major changes to our behaviour anyway, unless you actually believe the CEO of Exxon, who says that climate change is only an engineering problem and we can adapt.

    If you do believe him, I suspect you will believe it more than he does, but he has shareholders to protect and they as a breed, as has been clearly demonstrated oft times in the past, are more important than all our children and grandchildren put together. Ironically, it is those very same shareholders that should be reining in such C.E.O.s.

    As for me, the current situation reminds me of more words by Bob Dylan: “As a bad motorcycle with the devil in the seat, Going ninety miles an hour down a dead end street.” I would much prefer that we slow down and turn round now rather than slam into the brick wall at the end of the dead end street. If we don’t, it is going to be messy, very messy!

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