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Environment: Federal appeals court nixes fossil fuel lease sales in Chukchi Sea

Shell Oil has been permitted to start preparatory drilling in the Chukchi Sea.

A federal court this week ruled that the Bureau of Energy Management violated environmental laws when it sold leases for fossil fuel production in the Chukchi Sea.

Judges say feds made ‘arbitrary and capricious’ decision on how much oil can be extracted

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — There’s no question that there is a lot of oil beneath the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean, and the Chukchi Sea, specifically.

But exactly how much is a question that is still open to debate, according to a federal court, which this week ruled that the U.S. Department of Interior made an “arbitrary and capricious” decision when it sold drilling rights in the area back in 2008 based on an estimate of about 1 billion barrels of oil.

Federal officials may have pulled that number out of a hat, the three-hudge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, ordering the federal government to revise the environmental study for the 2008 lease sale. The court also said federal officials may have low-balled potential environmental impacts of fossil fuel development in the Chukchi Sea. Continue reading

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Arctic sea ice rebounds in October, but stays well below average

October Arctic sea ice has been declining at a rate of about 7.1 percent per decade during the satellite era.

Warm air temps due to open water inhibits ice growth in some areas

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Arctic sea ice expanded quickly in October, with coverage doubling from the record low level of mid-September. But because the ice dwindled to an all-time low level this summer, even the record rebound in October couldn’t boost the ice extent back into the average range, according to the latest update from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The average ice extent for October was 2.7 million square miles, the second lowest in the satellite record and about 89,000 square miles above the 2007 record low for October. The ice extent is about 884,000 square miles below the 1979 to 2000 average. Continue reading

Shell delays Arctic oil drilling

Shell delays Arctic oil drilling.

Critical containment gear damaged in final tests as drilling deadline looms

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — After a whirlwind summer of drilling, melting sea ice and failed safety tests, Shell Oil has backed of plans to tap into oil beneath the Chukchi Sea, at least for this year.

In a final setback, the company’s containment equipment was damaged, resulting in another delay that brought Shell too close to the Sept. 24 deadline for oil drilling.

“It is clear that some days will be required to repair and fully assess dome readiness. We are disappointed that the dome has not yet met our stringent acceptance standards; but, as we have said all along, we will not conduct any operation until we are satisfied that we are fully prepared to do it safely,” Shell said in a statement, adding that it plans to continue preparatory drilling. Continue reading

Environment: Watchdog group says testing of Shell’s Arctic drilling safety gear was inadequate

Polar bears on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, near the North Pole. with the USS Honolulu in the foreground.

Government report shows cursory testing with no detailed engineering data

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Some observers are hoping for the best when it comes to Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling plans, because the company clearly is not prepared for the worst, at least when it comes to testing critical equipment needed to prevent massive blowouts like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

After dragging it’s feet for a while, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement finally released all the information it had on last summer’s testing of a well-head capping stack system.

All the information on that test was included on less than a single page of typed text.

“I was shocked,” said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor who requested the testing report under the Freedom of Information Act. “I was expecting 50 or 70 pages … with pressure tests, detailed engineering info, graphs … it’s a critical piece of equipment in a blow-out,” said Steiner, an oil spill expert and board member of an environmental watchdog group. Continue reading

Shell Oil gets OK for preparatory Arctic drilling

Shell Oil has been permitted to start preparatory drilling in the Chukchi Sea.

Feds say there’s no risk of an oil spill at this stage, as oil company’s response ship still not certified

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal officials today gave Shell Oil the OK to start with some preparatory drilling activities in the Chukchi Sea despite the fact that the oil company’s spill response vessel, the Arctic Challenger, still isn’t certified.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the decision during a media conference call, saying that Shell’s preliminary drilling will be closely monitored by safety experts who will be on the rig 24 hours per day.

Salazar said the preparatory drilling is related to the installation of equipment designed to prevent spills. Since the activities permitted are not in an area where there is oil, there is no need to have the Arctic Challenger in place at this stage, he explained. Continue reading

Coldwater coral find in Arctic sea prompts renewed calls for more analysis before oil drilling starts

Greenpeace biologist John Hocevar shows a piece of raspberry coral from the seafloor of the Chukchi Sea near a proposed Shell drill site. To date, no form of corals are know to exist in the area. The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is on an Arctic expedition to study unexplored ocean habitats threatened by offshore oil drilling, as well as industrial fishing fleets. Photo courtesy Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace.

Greenpeace biologists say they’ve found previously unknown coral species near planned Shell Oil drilling site

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Oil companies and the Obama administration are rushing to start Arctic Ocean oil drilling despite warnings from scientists that not enough is known about the region’s ecology to be able to thoroughly evaluate potential impacts.

The discovery of coldwater corals on the floor of the Chukchi Sea lends support to the idea that there are still to many unknowns to proceed with risky drilling operations.

Greenpeace submarine researchers recently collected specimens of a sea raspberry coral (Gersemia rubiformis) from an area where Shell plans to drill in the coming weeks.

Following the discovery, conservation groups called on the U.S. Department of the Interior to fully analyze the potential damage Shell’s Arctic drilling could have on those cold-water corals in the Chukchi Sea. Continue reading

Arctic sea ice tracks near record low in July

Arctic sea ice extent has been tracking near record low levels much of the summer.

Melting slowed down during second half of the month

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Arctic sea continued to track at or near record low levels throughout July, as an early start to the melt season led to large areas of open water that speed up melting in adjacent ice areas.

As of July 23, satellite images showed areas of low sea ice concentration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the Canadian Archipelago, the East Greenland Sea, and north of Siberia. In the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, according to the latest update from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

During the first half of July, sea ice reached record-low levels numerous times, but melting slowed slightly during the second half of the month as storm systems brought cooler air to the region.

Large areas of open water (called polynyas) are being reported around areas of multiyear sea ice. Low ice concentrations mean a low surface albedo, allowing for more of the sun’s energy to be absorbed, melting even more sea ice. This makes the multiyear ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas vulnerable to melting out this summer, according to the NSIDC.

In parts of the Barents, Kara and Laptev seas, open water extends as far north as typically seen during September, at the end of the summer melt season. Sea ice extent is near normal in the Chukchi Sea and slightly above normal in the East Greenland Sea.

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