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Report finds serious flaws with Shell’s Arctic drilling program

Equipment failures, environmental violations and lack of oversight need to be addressed before moving ahead with drilling plans

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Feds tell Shell to rethink Arctic offshore drilling plans.

* More coverage of Shell’s Arctic drilling program

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Eager to exploit the Arctic for fossil fuel resources and to live up to shareholder expectations, Royal Dutch Shell rushed into its offshore drilling program without being “fully prepared in terms of fabricating and testing certain critical systems and establishing the scope of its operational plans,” according to a U.S. Department of Interior report released this week.

Key failures included Shell’s inability to get certification for an oil spill containment system  required to be on site in the event of a loss of well control. The report said the company’s failure to deploy the system was due “to shortcomings in Shell’s management and oversight of key contractors.”

The review was launched after a string of well-publicized problems culminated with a runaway drill rig that ended up running aground on a remote Alaskan island. The company is also under investigation for a string of violations of various environmental requirements. In February, Shell announced a one year pause in its Arctic drilling program to address the shortcomings. Continue reading

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Federal appeals court upholds polar bear protection

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Polar bears are threatened by global warming and qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Photo courtesy Susanne Miller/USFWS.

Court rejects challenge by Alaska and trophy hunters

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A federal appeals court has rebuffed Alaska’s efforts to weaken polar bear protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Explaining that global warming has already caused reductions in survival and recruitment rates in some regions, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service satisfied its duties under the law and adequately supported it decision to protect polar bears from extinction. Read the decision here.

The agency said the record makes it clear that federal biologists were aware of Alaska’s concerns and addressed them during the listing process. “We find … that under any reasonable reading of the Act, FWS committed no error in its response to the concerns raised by the State of Alaska,” the appeals court wrote in the March 1 ruling. Continue reading

Shell Oil notified of multiple violations in Arctic drilling program

The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. The Kulluk grounded after many efforts by tug vessel crews and Coast Guard crews to move the vessel to safe harbor during a winter storm. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Painter.

The conical drilling unit Kulluk sits grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. The Kulluk grounded after many efforts by tug vessel crews and Coast Guard crews to move the vessel to safe harbor during a winter storm. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Painter.

Company responds to violations by asking for permission to emit more pollution

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Environmental groups say numerous and ongoing violations of the Clean Air Act stemming from Shell’s ongoing efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean are yet another sign that the company isn’t prepared to operate in the pristine environment off the north coast of Alaska.

Most recently, the EPA issued notices of violation for failures to install required air pollution control technology, for failures to maintain and calibrate the equipment it is using and for violating emission standards set to protect human health and ambient air quality. Continue reading

Questions arise about Alaska’s role in Shell’s latest fiasco

The anchor-handling vessel, the Aiviq, tows the drilling unit Kulluk to a safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska on Jan. 7, 2013. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

The anchor-handling vessel, the Aiviq, tows the drilling unit Kulluk to a safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska on Jan. 7, 2013. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Documents suggest loopholes in state’s review of emergency response plans

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Alaska officials may have failed to adequately vet a tugboat under contract to Royal Dutch Shell before the company used the vessel to tow a conical drilling rig on an ill-fated trip that ended up with the drill rig running aground on a remote island.

Working in stormy seas at the end of December, the 360-foot Aiviq lost its towline with the 266-foot-wide Kulluk. Aiviq then suffered a complete engine shutdown. The Kulluk went adrift and ended up on the rocky shores of the remote, unpopulated Sitkalidak Island.

According to documents obtained under a public records act request, it appears that the State of Alaska’s oil spill prevention requirements did not cover the towing capacity for the Aiviq.  Instead, the state only looks at the ability of the towing ship to be towed itself, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Continue reading

Conservation groups request Arctic drilling moratorium

Arctic oil drilling Beaufort Sea

Sunset over the Beaufort Sea. Photo courtesy USGS.

Recent mishaps, lack of data cited in request for suspension of operations

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Citing huge data gaps about the basic ecology of the Arctic Ocean, as well as a string of recent accidents and near-misses in Royal Dutch Shell’s ongoing efforts to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, a coalition of environmental groups this week asked the Obama administration to suspend fossil fuel development in the region.

The letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came just a few days after the Interior Department announced a 60-day assessment of the Arctic offshore drilling program.

In a press release, the groups said any investigation will show that oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean cannot be conducted now in a safe and responsible manner. Along with equipment issues, there are still unanswered questions about the ability to contain and clean up potential spills in the remote, harsh Arctic environment. Those questions remain despite the fact the federal government has already signed off on Shell’s emergency response plan. Continue reading

Energy: BLM releases Alaska North Slope drilling plan

Some critical wildlife areas protected

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The BLM has mapped out areas that will be open for development in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, as well as areas that will be off limits to protect wildlife.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Another big slice of the Arctic will be opened for energy development, as the U.S. Department of Interior this week announced a plan that will open up 11.8 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to drilling and open the door for construction of a pipeline from offshore oil development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

The area opened for drilling could produce up to 549 million barrels of oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The environmental study released this week tries to balance energy extraction with protection natural resources and subsistence resources for Alaska natives.

At nearly 23 million acres, the Reserve is the largest contiguous piece of public land in the United States, harboring a wide array of wildlife including two caribou herds, threatened polar bears, wolves, wolverines, the largest density of Grizzly Bears in North America and millions of migratory birds and waterfowl.  Continue reading

Travel: Exploring Denali

Summer sojourn in the Alaska high country

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The Alaska Range from Denali State Park.

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Kim Fenske at Wonder Lake campground.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Denali National Park is the home of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet, named Denali or “The Great One” by the native Athabaskans. A thousand people each year attempt to reach the summit of this dominant promontory of southcentral Alaska. Most climbers fly by ski plane to a base camp at 7,200 feet on the face of the peak.  Roughly half of the climbers who spend two to three weeks attempting to reach the summit are able to achieve the goal. Since 1932, Denali has killed 120 climbers, primarily due to falls and avalanches. The annual search and rescue costs for the mountain are nearly $500,000.

During five days of backpacking around Denali National Park, I was exploring terrain beside the road that penetrates 92 miles of the park from the eastern entrance. On the first evening, I enjoyed all of the developed comforts of Riley Creek Campground. The Riley Creek Mercantile offers showers, laundry, electronic re-charging outlets, and wireless internet. After paying for a walk-in campsite, I enjoyed the evening in camp by dining on angel food pancakes, blueberry pie filling, and a pound of fresh cherries with a glass of wine. Then, the daily rain began to fall as I retreated into my tent for the evening.

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Riley Creek campground.

Continue reading

Wildlife: National Park plans hunting-rule changes in Denali

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A gray wolf in Denali National Preserve. Photo courtesy Kent Miller/NPS.

State and federal bear, wolf and coyote hunting regulations at odds

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — There could be a clash between state and federal hunting regulations in Alaska, where the National Park Service is proposing some changes in Denali National Preserve, including a ban on taking brown bears over bait stations, using artificial light to take black bears at dens, taking black bear cubs and sows with cubs. The new regs would also shorten the season for hunting wolves and coyotes.

According to the park service, the changes are in response to new state regulations that allow the killing of brown bears over bait stations in three game management units, which included portions of three National Preserves. The state rules allow the killing of brown bears over bait stations in three game management units, which included portions of three National Preserves. Continue reading

Travel: Exploring Valdez

Glaciers and rainforests meet near Alaskan harbor town

Ice melting after breaking free from the receding Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Alaskan coastal rain forest near Gold Creek.

Valdez is best best known for an oil tanker disaster in 1989, when the ship’s hull was ripped open and subsequently flooded Prince William Sound with 11 million gallons of crude oil that covered an area extending 470 miles to the southwest. However, the port of Valdez today is a biologically vibrant and beautiful part of the coastal rainforest that extends along the Alaskan coastal region.

Bus transportation is available from downtown Anchorage to Whittier, where ferry service delivers visitors to Valdez. I chose to drive the 265 miles across Alaska from Palmer, through the Matanuska River Valley, in order to pass Matanuska Glacier and explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Along the way, I camped beside Squirrel Creek, a river filled with fast-running, opaque, silt-filled glacial water. Next day, I dropped from a glacier-covered pass to the coastline at Valdez.

At the harbor, I joined a Stan Stephens tour of the Columbia Glacier on a sunny sky, passing friendly sea otters, whales, sea lions, and porpoises. According to the Boulder Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, Columbia Glacier has receded nine miles since 1980 and is expected to lose another nine miles during the next fifteen years. Discharging two cubic miles of ice into Prince William Sound each year, the Columbia Glacier is the largest North American glacial contributor to rising sea levels. Continue reading

Travel: Denali National Park finalizes new roads plan

Traffic limits shift from seasonal to daily

Denali and Wonder Lake. Photo courtesy NPS.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Motorized visitors to Denali National Park will be facing a new set of rules next summer, as the National Park Service has updated a road vehicle management plan that dates back to 1986 (with a 1997 amendment).

The big change is a switch from seasonal to daily limits for all vehicles, including buses, park service vehicles and contractors, traveling on the controlled portion of the park road. Under the new plan no more than 160 vehicles will be allowed beyond the Savage River Check Station each day. Previously, only buses had daily limits.

The plan incorporates an adaptive management strategy that involves regular monitoring to assess whether the plan meets park standards, including the quality of wildlife viewing, identified by guests a a major reason for visiting the park. The daily number of vehicles could be cut back even more based on the results of monitoring. Continue reading

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