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Environment: Lawsuit seeks Arctic drilling safety test data

A polar bear in the Arctic. Photo courtesy Dr. Kathy Crane, NOAA.

Group says feds missed deadline for responding to FOIA request

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — While federal officials say they’re satisfied with Puget Sound tests of Shell’s proposed Arctic-ready capping stack system, a watchdog group says some critical safety information hasn’t been released to the public.

The unreleased testing data could reveal whether there could be an Arctic repeat of the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico when Shell starts drilling in the Arctic, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The group filed a lawsuit this week to force the release of the information.

Federal officials said in June that the safety equipment meets new standards set to guard against another distastrous spill. Following the announcement, retired University of Alaska professor Rick Steiner, a PEER board member described as an oil spill expert, requested the actual Shell cap-test data under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has not produced the data within the required time limit, so PEER, representing Professor Steiner, followed up with legal action.

Shell has received permission to drill several exploratory wells in Arctic waters this summer but was unable to meet its own timeline for getting required equipment in place.

“The Department of Interior and Shell say that the capping stack tests were rigorous and proved the equipment will work to stop a wellhead blowout,” said Steiner. “But the public deserves to see the test results to judge whether the testing was indeed rigorous, and whether the capping stack actually works. That DOI is delaying release of the results, and Shell is poised to begin drilling its first Arctic Ocean wells within days, underscores the urgency here.  This is why we needed to sue to obtain the results,” Steiner said.

PEER is basing its complaint partially on the Department of Interior’s own findings on oversight, transparency and accountability. Early this year, a Government Accountability Office report found there is no definitive process for insuring both the availability and the reliability of blowout prevention and response equipment. The report also stressed the “unique risks” of Arctic offshore drilling, including floating ice, scouring ice (shearing along the ocean floor) and lack of any emergency infrastructure in the frigid, remote seas.

“Given its track record, Interior cannot just say ‘Trust us, we have this covered,’ said PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed the legal action in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “Complete transparency on this paramount issue is essential for public confidence that the federal government is not again accommodating oil companies at the expense of protecting irreplaceable public resources.”

PEER has also urged that Interior require redundant back-up systems as the Canadians do to prevent the nightmare scenario of a runaway spill under impenetrable sea ice from a blowout at the end of the short drilling season. Interior has rejected multiple response requirements, putting all of its proverbial eggs in the single capping stack system now being towed to the Arctic.

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