Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plans Threaten Wrangel Island Heritage Site
If you want to visit Wrangel Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a remote haven of unique wildlife and ancient biodiversity in the Chukchi Sea, you’re gonna need several government permits, an experienced guide, and maybe even access to an icebreaker. Yet spilled oil from Shell’s nearby drilling operation could sneak right in.
Wrangel Island, one of the most protected wilderness regions in the world, is home to the largest population of Pacific walruses and is the world’s largest denning ground for polar bears. It is also at risk of a major oil if Shell extracts oil in the Chukchi Sea. The global oil giant plans to do exploratory drilling this summer if granted federal approval.
The Worst Case Discharge oil spill model found in Shell’s Chukchi Sea oil spill response plan shows oil heading west toward Wrangel Island. Under this scenario, oil could enter the Wrangel Island buffer zone within 30 days. Despite modeling the trajectory of a spill, the company’s response plan does not include any specific tactics or information to protect Wrangel Island.
Wrangel Island lies in between the Chukchi Sea off the north slope of Alaska and the East Siberian Sea off the coast of Russia, what John Muir described when he visited in 1881 as the” topmost, frost-killed end of creation.” Despite its severe climate- the sun does not come out for a large chunk of the winter- the island teems with wildlife. It is estimated that as many as 400 mother polar bears come to Wrangel in the winter to raise their young. Along with polar bears and large populations of Pacific Walruses, Wrangel Island is also a unique home to the majestic snowy owl, the Arctic fox, muskoxen, reindeer, and diverse populations of seabirds including the only snow goose nesting colony in Asia. Possibly the coolest fact about Wrangel Island is that as recently as 3700 years ago it supported the last existing population of woolly mammoths.
In addition to Shell’s complete omission of a response plan for the highly-protected Wrangel Island, the company’s plan only makes only a passing reference to international cooperation in the event of a disaster. Shell already has a horrendous track record when it comes to Arctic drilling. In its disastrous Arctic drilling attempt in 2012, Shell had to halt drilling one day after it started because of encroaching sea ice, caused a major accident when its rig the Kulluk ran aground off the Alaskan Coast, and its containment dome the Arctic Challenger, a big part of Shell’s oil spill response fleet failed basic testing in the calm Puget Sound. Shell’s contractor, Noble Drilling, pled guilty to eight felony environmental and maritime crimes that occurred during the 2012 foray in Alaska and agreed to pay a $12.2 million fine.
Of primary concern this time around is the possibility of a large or very large oil spill during exploration, development or production at the lease sites in the Chukchi Sea. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, The U.S. government agency tasked with regulating Arctic drilling off the Alaskan coast, estimates the probability of at least one large, more than 1000 barrels, oil spill to be 75 percent over the lifetime of the lease. A recent report revealed the epic ineffectiveness of current oil spill technology when applied to an oil spill in the Arctic.
The map below compares Shell’s oil spill data with the location of Wrangel Island and the size of the buffer zone around the site.
“Wrangel Island is rightfully one of the most protected wilderness areas in the world but its legal status alone won’t keep out an oil spill,” said Greenpeace’s Senior Research Specialist Tim Donaghy. “Concrete steps to protect Wrangel Island may be missing from Shell’s oil spill response plan, but we cannot let a reckless oil giant spoil this haven of ancient biodiversity.”
The United States government is in the process of approving oil and gas exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska, and Shell Oil has already mobilized their drilling fleet with one rig, the Polar Pioneer, already in Washington while the second, the Noble Discoverer is expected to arrive in Seattle in mid-May.
The Polar Pioneer arrives in Port Angeles, Washington on April 18th, 2015.
“If our federal regulators allow Shell to move forward with its current plans, they’d be introducing a dangerous precedent that could put some of the world’s most protected places at risk of oil spills,” Donaghy said.
Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard has sent an official letter to the UNESCO director notifying the organization of the risk Shell’s plans pose to Wrangel Island.
Cassady Sharp a media officer for Greenpeace's campaign to save the Arctic. You can follow her opinions on environmental issues, news and culture @cassadyblair