Posts Tagged ‘Chukchi sea’

Melting Arctic sea ice drives walruses onto land

August 25, 2011

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON | Wed Aug 17, 2011 4:52pm EDT
(Reuters) – Original article here

Photo Credit: Liz Labunski/USFWS

Fast-melting Arctic sea ice appears to be pushing walruses to haul themselves out onto land, and many are moving around the area where oil leases have been sold, the U.S. Geological Survey reports.

Walruses are accomplished divers and frequently plunge hundreds of feet (meters) to the bottom of the continental shelf to feed. But they use sea ice as platforms to give birth, nurse their young and elude predators, and when sea ice is scarce or non-existent, as it has been this summer, they come up on land.

Last September, the loss of sea ice caused an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 walruses to venture onto land, and as sea ice melts reached a record last month, U.S. government scientists are working with Alaskan villagers to put radio transmitters on some of the hauled-out walruses to track their movements around the Chukchi Sea.

“The ice is very widely dispersed and there is little of it left over the continental shelf,” researcher Chad Jay of the U.S. Geological Survey said in a statement on Wednesday. “Based on our tracking data, the walruses appear to be spreading out and spending quite a bit of time looking for sea ice.”

The loss of sea ice puts Pacific walruses at risk, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but other, higher-priority species will get attention first. In February, the wildlife service listed Pacific walruses as candidates for protection, though not protection itself.

Walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means these animals cannot be harvested, imported, exported or be part of interstate commerce.

Polar bears, which also use sea ice in the Chukchi Sea as platforms for hunting, have been designated as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because of declining sea ice in the Arctic.

Compared to last year’s massive haul-out, there are few walruses on land, and there is no solid count, Jay said.

“There is a lot less ice than there used to be on the continental shelf this time of year,” he said. “So we might be headed into a new normal.”

Transmissions from the radio-tagged walruses offer a good picture of where these creatures are in the Chukchi Sea in a U.S. Geological Survey graphic updated approximately weekly.

SHRINKING ARCTIC SEA ICE

Available online here , the graphic shows where the walruses were when they were first tagged (shown as red Xs) and how they moved around the water (shown as yellow dots).

The graphic also shows changes in sea ice cover in the far north, indicating nearly ice-free conditions in areas where the walruses are moving. Many are within the boundaries of an oil lease sale area that stretches along the northwestern Alaska coast and far into the Chukchi Sea.

Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil hold leases in the Chukchi Sea, though no drilling has started.

Last month saw Arctic sea ice drop to its lowest extent — meaning that it covered the smallest area — for any July since satellite records began in 1979, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. Typically, Arctic sea ice hits its lowest extent for the year in September.

This record-low ice extent for July is lower than July ice extent in 2007, when ice extent shrank in September to its smallest area in the satellite record.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

Alaska whalers will wear white float coats for spring hunt

January 19, 2011

By RACHEL D’ORO
The Associated Press

STEPHANIE AGUVLUK / The Associated Press Eskimo whalers wear float coats on the Chukchi Sea north of Wainwright. The whale hunters have traditionally worn white as camouflage, forgoing the use of life jackets because they've been unavailable in white. When the whaling season arrives this spring hunters from 11 coastal villages will wear the white float coats.

Published: January 17th, 2011 09:46 PM
Last Modified: January 18th, 2011 02:32 PM

Gordon Brower has been hunting bowhead whales for most of his 47 years, forgoing life jackets because no one made them in white, the only color that would work as camouflage on Alaska’s icy Arctic coast.

Now the whaling captain from the nation’s northernmost town of Barrow and other Eskimo whalers have begun to wear personal flotation devices, custom-made in the white they’ve traditionally used to make them more invisible to their massive prey.

When the subsistence whaling season arrives this spring, more Alaska Native hunters from coastal villages will be outfitted with the white float coats being distributed through a safety program that’s been greatly expanded since its debut last year. A couple dozen whalers also will receive white float pants.

Brower’s crew was among whalers who tried the coats last year. On the first trek out with the new gear, the crew landed a 30-ton bowhead.

“Everything kind of lined up in a straight line and the stars were with us, and we got a whale,” he said, noting the only glitch with the coats is the noise they make in extremely cold weather. “Other than that, I think they work pretty good. We were happy to use them.”

The coats are the result of efforts by the Coast Guard, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Burnaby, British Columbia-based Mustang Survival Corp., which makes flotation and extreme climate protection products. The whalers’ coats have a nylon shell and flotation foam filling, which also offers protection against the frigid conditions faced in the Arctic.

WHALER DROWNINGS RARE

Mike Folkerts, a recreational boating safety specialist with the Coast Guard, was participating in a mission to Barrow in 2009 when he noticed the town’s main grocery and general store had no life jackets for sale. Local whalers told him life jackets were too bright and would scare away the animals. He asked if they would wear the jackets if they were available in white.

The hunters said sure.

Folkerts called a couple companies, including Mustang, that sent prototype samples, which Folkerts showed to the whalers.”They loved them,” he said.

There is no federal or state requirement to wear a life jacket in a recreational boat unless the person is under 13, although life jackets on board are required, he said.

The Coast Guard can’t purchase equipment to give to the public, so Folkerts turned to the tribal health consortium. The organization tapped $12,000 of its own funds and ordered 52 coats from Mustang, distributing them among whalers in Barrow and two other villages.

It was an apt connection.

One of the consortium’s areas of interest is reducing the disproportionate rate of drownings among Alaska Natives.

Between 2000 and 2006, Alaska Natives accounted for 179 drowning deaths in the state, or 45 percent of the 402 such deaths in that period, although they represented less than 18 percent of Alaska’s population at the time, according to Hillary Strayer, the organization’s injury prevention specialist.

 

ROLE MODELS

Drowning deaths are a rarity among whalers, who are extremely safety conscious, according to Folkerts.

But Brower has seen his share of tipped boats over the years. He points out that his boat is only 24 feet long, while whales can be more than twice as long, averaging a ton per foot.

“Once in a great while, somebody has lost their lives,” he said. “The potential is always there, especially when you are attempting to harvest a whale and the animal is a big animal.”

As far as Strayer is concerned, whalers are role models. She’s hoping they inspire others to start wearing life jackets.

“They are pillars of their community,” she said. “They’re really looked up to.”

 

OIL COMPANY DONATIONS

For the upcoming spring whaling season that begins in April when bowheads are heading north, the consortium is distributing 96 coats among crews from the remaining villages that are members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which represents 11 communities.

Four crews, including Brower’s, will get the float pants.

The funds for this year’s effort came from a $15,000 donation from Shell Oil and almost $11,000 from Conoco Phillips, an oil producer on the North Slope, where some of the whaling villages are located. Shell has offshore oil exploration projects in the region.

Representatives of the companies said the donations stemmed from their support of the subsistence lifestyle of Natives in the area and the companies’ devotion to safety.

“If outfitting North Slope whalers with traditional-looking, but effective, float coats saves a life, that’s a behavioral change that we’re proud to be part of,” Shell’s Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said.

Shell gets conditional OK for Beaufort exploratory drilling

December 3, 2010
I am sorry, but Hornorkesteret and Anchorage Daily News do not see eye to eye on this one. See also earlier post about “unconventional ‘tight’ shales, sands, carbonates and hydrocarbon ‘source’ rocks.”
Anchorage Daily News: Our view: Good call
Original article here

Shell Alaska’s plans to drill an exploratory well just offshore in the Beaufort Sea this summer is a go — pending another safety review by federal regulators.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said offshore Arctic exploration would proceed “with utmost caution.” Close scrutiny of Shell’s plans and performance should be no damper on 2011 exploration plans.

Shell scaled back its original 2011 program, leaving disputed Chukchi Sea development to be resolved in court to focus on the Beaufort project. The more modest enterprise will give the company, regulators and North Slope leaders a chance to narrow their focus and make sure everything is done right.

While it’s still a little tentative, the Obama administration’s endorsement reflects the decision it made about Alaska development before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April. That decision was to nix exploration near the rich salmon fishery of Bristol Bay, but to explore and develop with care in the Arctic.

That made sense then and still does.

Rear Adm. Christopher Clovis, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska, said last month that he has confidence in Shell’s exploration plans for 2011. He said actual production — which is the goal of exploration, after all — presents more problems. But there’s time to address those.

Let Shell go to work in 2011 to explore for oil — and also restore faith in the industry’s ability and will to do it right, to tap Alaska’s oil and gas treasure while abiding by the highest and environmental and safety standards on the planet.

That’s the challenge. We need the oil. We need the jobs. And we need to provide them while protecting the Arctic environment and its communities.

BOTTOM LINE: Feds’ conditional blessing of Shell’s Beaufort exploration is good news.

Arctic Drilling Poses Untold Risks, Study Concludes

November 13, 2010

The idiocy continues.
Hornfar

Original article here in The New York Times “Green” blog

By LESLIE KAUFMAN

An image of a an oil-spill response vessel from a Shell commercial promoting Arctic drilling.

Green: Science

Now that the moratorium on deep-sea oil and gas drilling has been lifted by the Obama administration, the battle for the Arctic is heating up again.

The suspension of deep-sea drilling was of course a reaction to the disastrous blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that gushed from April to July, producing the biggest offshore oil spill in the nation’s history. The moratorium was lifted last month, about six weeks before a Nov. 30 expiration date.

As soon as it was lifted, my colleague Cliff Krauss reported last week, Royal Dutch Shell began lobbying eagerly to get final approval for its long-delayed plans for exploratory drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The petro-giant is paying for national advertising as part of a campaign to convince the public and the government that it is taking safety precautions that would prevent the kind of catastrophe that unfolded in the gulf from happening in the Arctic.

Yet the Arctic is well known to be more fragile ecologically than the gulf. And on Thursday, the Pew Environment Group released a detailed report brimming with charts and maps that explores the question of how well the government and industry would be equipped to deal with a blowout and spill there. The report concludes, not so well. And here are some word-for-word highlights on why:

  • The Arctic Ocean is a unique operating environment, and the characteristics of the Arctic OCS [outer continental shelf] — its remote location, extreme climate and dynamic sea ice—exacerbate the risks and consequences of oil spills while complicating cleanup.
  • Oil spill contingency plans often underestimate the probability and consequence of catastrophic blowouts, particularly for frontier offshore drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
  • The impact of an oil well blowout in the U.S. Arctic Ocean could devastate an already stressed ecosystem, and there is very little baseline science upon which to anticipate the impact or estimate damage.
  • Oil spill cleanup technologies and systems are unproved in the Arctic Ocean, and recent laboratory and field trials (including the Joint Industry Project) have evaluated only discrete technologies under controlled conditions.
  • Certain environmental and weather conditions would preclude an oil spill response in the Arctic Ocean, yet an Arctic spill response gap is not incorporated into existing oil spill contingency plans or risk evaluations.

So the researchers concluded that far more study is needed of the Arctic marine ecosystem. Modeling should be devised to project the trajectory of oil flow in sea ice conditions should a spill occur, they added.

And deployment exercises should be conducted to determine how effective a spill response would be in such a remote, sparsely populated region “before introduction of new offshore oil spill risks,” the report said. (The study includes a detailed critique of Shell’s planning scenarios in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.)

In other words, the study’s message is that the Arctic is not ready for such deep-sea drilling operations.

Asked about the Pew report’s conclusions, a Shell spokeswoman, Kelly op de Weegh, said in an e-mail that the company had “taken extraordinary steps to compensate for the harsh conditions we expect to encounter in the Arctic, and that is evident in all aspects of our program, including ice management, a commitment to oil spill response and new baseline science.”

“Our Arctic exploration plan has been scrutinized by regulators, stakeholders and the courts, and we look forward to demonstrating once again that we can operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic,” she added.

The study’s conclusion was also disputed by lawmakers who support the drilling. “I disagree with Pew’s insistence on an unspecified moratorium on Arctic development, because the perfect set of conditions simply never occurs,” Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, said in a statement. “I’ll continue to push the Obama administration for responsible Arctic development now to help meet America’s energy, national and economic security.”

Shell Presses for Drilling in Arctic

November 7, 2010
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
Published: November 5, 2010
New York Times – Original article here

The Nanuq is part of Shell’s Arctic oil spill response fleet, which would be ready 24 hours a day.

HOUSTON — Eager to win approval for its stalled plan to drill for oilin the Alaskan Arctic, Royal Dutch Shell is beginning a public lobbying campaign, including national advertising, on Monday. As part of the effort, the giant oil company is promising to make unprecedented preparations to prevent the kind of disaster that polluted the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year.

Shell’s plan to drill in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas has been snarled in regulatory delays and lawsuits for four years. The company has already invested $3.5 billion in the projects, and it was close to overcoming the final regulatory hurdles to begin drilling when BP’s Macondo well blew out April 20, killing 11 rig workers and spilling millions of barrels of oil into the gulf.

In response to the gulf accident, the Obama administration suspended most new offshore drilling, including in the environmentally sensitive waters of the Arctic.

But now that the moratorium on gulf drilling has been lifted, Shell is pressing the Interior Department to grant final approval for its Arctic projects by the end of this year so that the company has enough time to move the necessary equipment to drill next summer, when the waters offshore are free of ice.

“Every day we’re delayed, we’re delaying jobs and energy development,” Peter Slaiby, Shell’s vice president for Alaska, said in an interview.

“It’s a crushing irony that the Gulf of Mexico moratorium is lifted and we are not allowed to move forward.”

The gulf disaster raised public and government awareness of the risks of catastrophic spills from offshore wells. The waters off Alaska are considered particularly tricky because of the long periods of daytime darkness, periods of months when ice would block the movement of relief ships and the fragility of ocean habitats for whales, polar bears and other species.

“We are opposed to drilling until we get sufficient science that demonstrates that you can do it truly safely,” said Chuck Clusen, director of the National Parks and Alaska projects at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Shell said its emergency response plan was far more robust than the one BP had in the gulf.

“We’re not a tone-deaf company,” Mr. Slaiby said. “We’ve really got to be compelling in what we are doing.”

 

Shell is beginning a public lobbying campaign, including national advertising, next week. The company’s plan to drill in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas has been snarled in regulatory delays and lawsuits for four years.

Shell’s new marketing campaign promotes an “unprecedented spill response approach” including a sub-sea containment system, an upgrade of the drilling rig’s blowout preventer and an enhanced response plan that include teams and equipment at the ready 24 hours a day. 

The containment system would include a dome that could be placed over any leak, and a funnel to take any escaping oil to surface ships. A rig would be at the ready to drill a relief well if needed.

“We’ve opted out of the fire department type of approach,” Mr. Slaiby said. “Our assets can be on site and deployed within one hour.”

Shell has also scaled back its initial drilling plans to just one or two wells in the Beaufort Sea. It is postponing drilling in the more remote Chukchi Sea pending separate legal challenges.

The company has the support of Alaska’s state government, which is suing the federal government to overturn the drilling suspension.

Gov. Sean Parnell said the suspension was illegal because the Interior Department did not consult with state officials or consider the local economic consequences.

A federal district court judge in Alaska gave the Interior Department a deadline of Friday to respond to the Alaska suit, with a hearing planned for the end of the month.

The Justice Department responded Friday night with a filing that argued that the state did not have standing to sue in the matter, and that the Interior Department was in the process of considering the application.

“We are taking a cautious approach,” said Kendra Barkoff, an Interior Department spokeswoman.

“Alaska represents unique environmental challenges. We need additional information about spill risks and spill response capabilities.”

Shell’s campaign appears aimed at increasing pressure on the Obama administration to approve the plan. The company is placing ads for the rest of the month in national newspapers, liberal and conservative political magazines and media focused on Congress.

For Shell and others in the oil and gas industry, nothing less than the revival of Alaska’s oil history is at stake.

Alaska is the second-biggest oil-producing state after Texas, but it has suffered a steady production decline since 1988, when output peaked at 2.1 million barrels a day.

With its North Slope fields long past their prime, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off-limits to drilling and offshore wells largely untapped, the state today produces about 680,000 barrels a day and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is running at one-third of capacity.

To make matters worse, the United States Geological Survey last month cut previous estimates of oil reserves in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, an area preserved by the federal government in case of national emergency, by about 90 percent, to 896 million barrels, approximately what the country consumes in six weeks.

Industry officials say there are as many as 25 billion barrels of oil reserves in the Alaskan Arctic. At the moment, there has been no offshore drilling in Alaskan federal waters since 2003, although there is some production from older wells.

Companies wanting to drill face heavy drilling costs, local opposition and legal challenges from environmental groups that say a potential blowout could endanger critical feeding and spawning grounds for a variety of Arctic species and warn that rough Arctic seas would complicate any containment and cleanup operations.

Mr. Clusen of the resources council noted that a blowout at Shell’s project would cause a slick on barrier islands that are critical birthing areas for polar bears in the winter.

He urged that Shell be obliged to rewrite its exploration documents to include the new response plans and allow the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement to formally review “whether that response is adequate or not.”

Shell hopes that Chukchi Sea leases it acquired for $2.1 billion in 2008 could eventually produce as much as 400,000 barrels of oil a day. The holdings in the Beaufort Sea are probably less bountiful, but could eventually produce as much as 100,000 barrels a day.

Shell executives insist that drilling in Arctic waters is safe. They say they will be drilling in 100 to 150 feet of water in the Beaufort Sea, compared with depths of 5,000 feet and more in the gulf, which means that the equipment will be subject to far less pressure.

A version of this article appeared in print on November 6, 2010, on page B1 of the New York edition.