NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The Secretary of the Interior approved Shell Oil’s proposal to develop eight deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico though Shell’s worst-case scenario plan for a well blowout is obviously flawed, and the technology does not yet exist to make drilling safe in waters that deep, environmentalists say.
Earthjustice protested the approval in a letter to the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which estimates the by attorneys for environmental groups, the likelihood of another blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is 1 in 43.
Claiming that only 43 such deepwater wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico – including the ill-fated Macondo well, which blew out in April 20, “the actual risk of catastrophic failure for wells of this nature based on past oil spills is 1 in 43,” according to the April 21 letter from Earthjustice.
“No reasonable person would take a 1-in-43 chance of their house burning down, so why in heaven’s name would the federal government take a 1-in-43 chance of having another massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?” Earthjustice attorney David Guest said in a statement issued over the weekend.
According to Shell’s plan, a worst-case scenario spill from wells 7,200 feet deep – more than 2,000 feet deeper than BP’s Macondo well – would result in an oil flow almost seven times more powerful and a volume of oil nine times greater than that of the Deepwater Horizon spill last summer.
Also, according to the plan, dispersants would be the company’s primary defense against environmental damage from a spill – though the toxic dispersant Corexit has been blamed for exacerbating problems, and illnesses, from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Three other environmental groups challenged the Interior Secretary’s approval of the Shell oil wells in a June 8 petition for review to the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.
The Gulf Restoration Network, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club say Shell’s permits were approved without full public disclosure, and that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the agencies he oversees have not been forthcoming with information.
In its April 21 letter, attorneys for Earthjustice said the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement approved Shell’s exploration plan though it had never been posted for public viewing.
“We object to the Bureau’s use of procedure in which it claims to ‘open’ a plan for comment but never informs the public it is being opened,” the letter states. “Second, a review of the website reveals that the comment period was shortened to April 18, 2011, again without notice to the public.”
According to Earthjustice’s lengthy letter, which cites 88 exhibits, “A worst case scenario spill … would occur 72 miles from shore, could last 128 days, and result in the discharge of 45 million barrels of oil. … Shell estimates that the initial first day flow would be 405,000 barrels of oil, which would reduce to an average of 371,000 barrels per day over the course of a month. … By comparison, the Deepwater Horizon disaster resulted in a spill of approximately 60,000 barrels of oil per day for a total of approximately 5 million barrels over 83 days.”
Earthjustice claims the government’s own analysis of Gulf of Mexico spill data calculates the risk of another disastrous oil spill as being greater than the chances of a woman giving birth to identical twins.
But it says that calculation is inaccurate.
“The Bureau’s use of the population of all wells drilled in water depths of greater than 500 feet for the purpose of calculating risk is inconsistent with the industry’s own calculation of risk,” the letter states. “The industry has developed a ‘mechanical risk index’ (MRI) which calculates the complexities present in deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico based on a number of factors and then rates the complexity of the well on a 1 to 5 scale with 5 being the most complex. … The Deepwater Horizon well would represent a 3+ -4 in these rankings. Only 43 wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico with a complexity level of 3, 4, or 5 which would indicate that the actual risk of catastrophic failure for wells of this nature based on past spills is 1 in 43. The wells proposed by Shell are being drilled in the most complex water depth, their targeted well depth is greater than 28,000 feet … and there is subsea salt in the location where they are being drilled. … These facts indicate that Shell’s wells would be as or more complex than the Deepwater Horizon well. The Bureau ignores these relevant factors.”
Earthjustice also says the government’s reliance on blowout preventers is unreasonable.
“Industry experts, including those who have assisted BOEMRE and the oil spill commission have stated that ‘blowout preventers are not reliable enough’ and that ultra deepwater drilling shouldn’t be conducted until the operators conduct validation projects to prove they can drill safely,” the letter states.
Earthjustice also objects to Shell’s proposal to rely on dispersant to react to a spill, and to freezing the public out of the discussion.
“The Bureau received a public copy of Shell Exploration Plan S-7444 in October of 2010, and the plan was not ‘deemed submitted’ until five months later,” the letter states. “During that time the plan could have been conducted and posted on the public website, and the public could have been provided a meaningful opportunity to comment on the Bureau’s proposed final agency action. Instead, the Bureau is again cutting the public out of the process on a matter of extraordinary public concern.”
A press release Shell issued on June 8 states that Shell is announcing “a significant, multi-billion dollar investment to develop its major Cardamom oil and gas field in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”
A footnote explains that the press release is a “forward-looking statement,” and that it is up to the reader to understand that the statement is not perfectly precise, possibly is inaccurate, and that all statements that are not factual should be considered “forward-looking.”
“Forward-looking statements are statements of future expectations that are based on management’s current expectations and assumptions and involve known and unknown risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results, performance or events to differ materially from those expressed or implied in these statements. … Neither Royal Dutch Shell nor any of its subsidiaries undertake any obligation to publicly update or revise any forward-looking statement as a result of new information, future events or other information,” according to the lengthy footnote.
Shell did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In the original, June 14 version of this story, there was some confusion about the date of Shell’s press release. Shell, a Dutch company, uses the Day/Month/Year numeric dating system, rather than the Month/Day/Year system used in the United States. Courthouse News apologizes for the error, which has been corrected.)