Empty Shell

Happy New Year.  The snow here is two feet deep and the temperature is in single digits, sometimes above and sometimes below zero.  Winter in Vermont as it should be and as it too rarely seems to be anymore.

Global warming is the cause, of course, and while we seem to be enjoying a respite from it here in New England, I have spent most of the hours of 2013 (so far), dealing with a pernicious effect of global warming on the far side of the North America continent.

Royal Dutch Shell, better known to Americans as Shell Oil, has been trying to drill for oil in the ocean north of Alaska for some years now, but its plans are continuously foiled, mostly by Shell’s own stunning incompetence.  (I try to keep these things under 1,000 words, so an exhaustive catalog of Shell’s mishaps – and the US government’s equal incompetence in providing oversight – won’t fit in the space allotted, but there was the drifting drill ship, the flaming onboard engine and the safety equipment “crushed like a beer can” while be tested in calm waters.)

How to top that?  Well, after spending five years and $5 billion dollars and having nothing to show for it yet, Shell decided in late December to tow its $300 million drilling rig from Alaska to Seattle.  Why?  Because if the rig was in Alaskan waters on January 1, Shell would owe $7 million in taxes to the state.  So, the wise heads at Shell checked their manual and it said: “At all costs, put minor enhancements to the bottom line ahead of human lives, safety and potential environmental damage.”

And that’s exactly what Shell did.  They got a souped up ship – just one, and from Louisiana no less – to tow the rig across the Gulf of Alaska, which is rightly famous for some of the filthiest weather on Earth.  Who needs a backup?  Don’t these idiots watch “The Most Dangerous Catch”?

What could go wrong?  Everything.  The towlines broke, the tow ship’s engines failed.  (Dirty fuel – how’s that for poetic justice?)  The Coast Guard, at risk of life and limb – and great expense to the taxpayer – came to the rescue, and the 18 men on the rig were rescued, but the oil rig – the Kulluk – is now beached at Sitkalidak Island, just south of Kodiak Island and as I type, it looks like it’s doomed.

So to save $7 million, Shell will lose a $300 million rig, plus tens of millions more in rescue and salvage expenses, at least a billion dollars worth of bad press – and if there’s any justice in the world – this will mean the end of trying to drill for oil off the north slope of Alaska.  Turns out those environmentalists Shell disdains so haughtily, the ones who said the Arctic is too wild and dangerous to drill without mishap – or in Shell’s case, a ceaseless series of mishaps – were right all along.

Shell has proven it’s opponents’ case far better than they ever could.  Now it looks like some portion of the 150,000 gallons of diesel and drilling oil in the Kulluk may wind up despoiling critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions and sea otters.  Should I note that the beach where the Kulluk is grounded was preserved as wildlife habitat as part of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill settlement?  Should I have to?

Why is Shell called Shell?  Because the firm’s 19th century founder, Marcus Samuel, wanted to honor his father, who sold seashells and other novelties at a British seaside resort.  Some tribute.

The year is less than a week old and already the dystopian future crowds in and breathes down our collective neck.  Let’s hope it gets better – and smarter – than this.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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