Nel's New Day

May 19, 2015

David v. Goliath; Or Shell No!

No U.S. laws will change because of the TPP. That’s President Obama’s claim through his push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Senate, however, has two companion trade bills. One will allow any president to negotiate trade agreements within the next six years with no amendments of filibusters in Congress. The second bill is a trade adjustment assistance (TAA) bill that provides federal funds for workers displaced by free trade agreements. This help includes from job training, placement services, relocation expenses, income support, and health insurance subsidies.

TAA gets part of its funding from $700 million in Medicare cuts. Although sequestration (except for “defense”) expires in 2024, the TAA bill expands it while the other $2.2 billion comes from customs user fees. Compared to billions, $700 million isn’t much, but it’s another chip in social services, a reduction while the pet “defense” budget increases. The bill continues Congress’s philosophy that treats Medicare as its own piggy bank. Also the $700 million shows how little help the tens of thousands of people losing jobs will receive. The falsehood that TPP changes no U.S. laws just adds to the misrepresentations of a “trade agreement.”

The U.S. fight to prevent TPP is reminiscent of the biblical story of David and Goliath. Congressional legislators and the president forge ahead in the face of telephone calls to them showing an opposition of 25 to 1. You can add your voice here.

President Obama has created another David & Goliath story in the Northwest. A week ago, the Obama administration opened the door to drilling in the Arctic when it granted approval to Shell for exploration in this area “subject to rigorous safety standards,” according to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Shell plans to drill up to six wells about 70 miles offshore of the northwest coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea this summer between July 1 and the end of September. The plan is open to comment for another week.

If Shell were to develop the area, the leases would result in eight offshore platforms, 400 to 457 production wells, 80 to 92 service wells, 380 to 420 miles of offshore pipelines, 600 to 640 miles of onshore pipelines, a shorebase, a processing facility, and a waste facility. The agency approving Shell’s plan reported that there was a “75% chance of one or more large spills” occurring in the area over the next 77 years. During development, about 800 oil spills of less than 1,000 barrels apiece are “considered likely to occur,” some even at the exploration-only stage. It can be expected that at least two large spills greater than 1,000 barrels of oil will occur. Such occurrences would devastate both ecosystems and the people who rely on these for their living. 

This remote area is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to drill for oil. Rescue and cleanup is almost nonexistent with the closest Coast Guard station for this purpose over 1,000 miles away. Three years ago, Shell left the Arctic after a number of disasters, including the Kulluk oil rig that had to be towed to safety in late 2012 and sold for junk after it ran aground because of the company’s “inadequate assessment and management of risks,” according to a report released by the U.S. Coast Guard. The catastrophe left 150,000 gallons of fuel and drilling fluid along a formerly pristine coastline. The next year, the Interior Department stated that Shell failed to meet safety mandates and ordered the corporation to stop drilling.

For years, Shell has been talking about the problems of climate change and how the increase in temperature—double former projections—will cause devastating rising of oceans. Shell remains a member of the far-right legislative-writing organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and then states that climate change regulations are the purview of policymakers. Then the company argues that the opposition of global warming cannot distract from the growing energy demand from the growing population and people living in poverty. As Shell’s CEO, Ben van Beurden, said, “The issue is how to balance one moral obligation, energy access for all, against the other: fighting climate change.”

Obviously, Shell finds its moral obligation in “energy access for all.” Restricting global temperatures makes U.S. Arctic oil extraction economically unviable. The more the ice melts, the greater chance Shell has of finding oil in the area. Despite van Beurden’s call for an informed debate surrounding climate change, Shell continues to partner with ALEC. As executive chair of Google, Eric Schmidt, said last year when the company pulled out of ALEC, “They are just literally lying [about climate change.]”

Despite Shell’s claims to have a “thoroughly responsible plan,” the company refuses to test essential oil spill equipment in Arctic conditions. After the company tested the containment dome in 2012 when it “crushed like a beer can” in safety testing, it has been tested only in waters off Washington State. Shell has also retained Noble Drilling after it had to pay $12 million after pleading guilty to eight crimination offenses working for Shell in 2012. These included the falsification of records, unauthorized alterations to essential equipment, and “willfully failing to notify the U.S. Coast Guard of hazardous conditions aboard the drill ship Noble Discoverer.”

Shell has even failed to obtain necessary permits from the City of Seattle, where it leased mooring near a dense residential area at a container terminal not intended as a home port. The city has claimed that Shell violates the terminal’s use and demanded an additional use permit from Seattle. A lawsuit claims that the port failed to comply with public processes, zoning regulations, and environmental regimes and calls for a new environmental review. Mike O’Brien, a city council member, talked about concerns that the drilling fleet could “discharge oil and other toxic pollutants” in the Puget Sound and damaging a fragile ecosystem that the area has worked for decades to clean up.

An alternative to Seattle for Shell’s moorage is Dutch Harbor (AK), but comes at a higher cost with rougher weather. Shell also wants to avoid Alaska’s fossil fuel tax. The Noble was trying to escape that fuel tax when it managed to ground the drilling rig on the coastline because of bad weather. The owners of both vessels that Shell wants to leave in Seattle when they aren’t operating in the Arctic have both been cited for safety dangers and pollution discharge. The Noble Discover’s pollution-control system, which broke in 2012, also failed last month in near Hawaii. The owner of the other, Transocean, paid $1.4 billion in civil and criminal penalties after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster killing 11 workers and blowing five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The first permit that Shell received is conditional, based on the requirement that the company obtain another seven state and federal permits including incidental harassment authorizations from the National Marine Fisheries Service, letters of authorization from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and wastewater discharge approvals from the Environmental Protection Agency. Growing noise levels and vessel traffic from Shell’s endeavors threaten the whales in the Arctic: gray whales are there year-round, bowhead whales migrate through the area, and Beluga whales raise their young there. Other species in the area are Pacific walruses, polar bears, seals, and various seabird populations.

Activists participate in the sHell No Flotilla part of the Paddle In Seattle protest.  Nearly a thousand people from country gathered May 16, 2015 in Seattle's Elliot Bay for a family-friendly festival and on-land rally to protest against Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.  Photo by Greenpeace

Activists participate in the sHell No Flotilla part of the Paddle In Seattle protest. Nearly a thousand people from country gathered May 16, 2015 in Seattle’s Elliot Bay for a family-friendly festival and on-land rally to protest against Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. Photo by Greenpeace

Seattle residents aren’t accepting the drilling rigs. Hundreds of activists are blocking road traffic—including port workers—to the port. Another 500 “kayaktivists” surrounded the Polar Pioneer drilling rig that arrived last Thursday despite the dangers. Kayakers too close to the propwash, the propeller stream, can get sucked into the frigid water, and kayakers in the way of the ship’s momentum can drown. Their plan is to make sure that the semi-submersible drilling unit with a 170-foot-tall derrick doesn’t leave to destroy the Arctic. Shell’s other drilling rig is already avoiding the inhospitality by mooring farther north at Everett (WA).

ARCTIC_DRILLING_43917475As the kayakers’ sign read, “The people vs. Shell.” I’m rooting for the people. Maybe David will win again.

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