Shell has been accused of "stock-car racing recklessness" after apparently undertaking only the most limited testing of a key piece of equipment aimed at preventing a Gulf of Mexico-style blowout during its controversial drilling in the Arctic.
Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request suggest field-testing of a containment dome took place over two hours on 25 and 26 June. The dome, known as a "capping stack", would be dropped over any stricken wellhead.
Two officials from the bureau of safety and environmental enforcement (BSSE) – an arm of the US interior department – were present with Shell officials at the tests in Puget Sound, Alaska, but there was no independent verification of the tests.
Shell reportedly started work yesterday on the $4.5bn (£2.8bn) drilling programme in the Chukchi Sea, 70 miles off Alaska's north-west coast. It does not yet have permission to drill into oil reserves.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), a US group that helps federal and state employees raise the alarm on environmental protection issues, said it was shocked by the single page of notes from the government agency after it filed a federal lawsuit against the BSSE asking for all documents relating to the capping tests.
This "slim production" belied the agency's [BSSE] claim in press statements that it had conducted comprehensive testing to meet "rigorous new standards", added Peer. "The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200ft of water without dropping it," said Kathryn Douglass, a Peer staff lawyer. "The second test showed the capping system could hold up under laboratory conditions for up to 15 minutes without crumbling. Neither result should give the American public much comfort."
Shell did not contest the assumptions made by Peer about the testing but said the containment cap was only one of various pieces of equipment assembled over a long period of time to deal with any emergency.
"Approval of our Chukchi Sea oil spill response plan [Orsp] … validates the huge amount of time, technology, and resources we have dedicated to assembling an Arctic oil spill response fleet second to none in the world," said a Shell spokesman.
"It reinforces that Shell's approach to Arctic exploration is aligned with the high standards the department of interior expects from an offshore leader. Specifically, Shell's Orsp includes the assembly of a 24/7 onsite, nearshore and onshore Arctic-class oil spill response fleet, collaboration with the US Coast Guard to test roles and responsibilities and newly engineered Arctic capping and containment systems." Environmental campaigners Greenpeace said the limited testing of the crucial sub-sea cap displayed a "total disregard" for even the most basic safety standards.
"Such recklessness wouldn't look out of place in a stock-car race," said Ben Ayliffe, senior Arctic campaigner at Greenpeace. "The only option now is for the US government to call a halt to Shell's plans to open up the frozen north because the company is so clearly unable to operate safely in the planet's most extreme environment.
"Whatever Shell is able to do in the narrow window between now and when the sea ice returns, it won't erase the clear evidence we've seen in the past two months that there's no such thing as safe drilling in the Arctic."
The company was granted permission to starting digging with its drill ship in the Chukchi Sea but only into the layer of ocean bottom located above oil reserves.
Shell can dig 20-by-40ft mud-line cellars, which will eventually hold and protect a well's blowout preventer 40ft below the seabed. The US interior secretary, Ken Salazar, said he had made his decision after an exhaustive review of Shell drilling rigs and safety equipment, including a capping stack.
"Any approved activities will be held to highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards," he said.
Shell hopes to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in this year's open-water season, rapidly drawing to a close.