* Green groups say government should halt drilling plan
* Shell rig ran aground this week during storm
* Congressman questions Shell's fitness in the Arctic
By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON, Jan 3 Opponents of Royal Dutch
Shell's ambitious Arctic oil program have called on the
Obama administration to put offshore drilling plans in the
region on hold after one of the company's oil rigs broke away
from tow boats in high seas and ran aground off Alaska.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness
Society on Thursday said the accident involving Shell's Kulluk
oil rig is new evidence that oil companies are not prepared to
safely manage the extreme conditions of the Arctic.
The 30-year-old Kulluk rig ran aground on New Year's Eve in
what were described as "near hurricane" conditions while it was
being towed south for the winter.
"This string of mishaps by Shell makes it crystal clear that
we are not ready to drill in the Arctic," Chuck Clusen, NRDC's
director of Alaska projects, told reporters in a teleconference.
The green groups said they plan to send a letter to the
Department of the Interior demanding that it stop issuing
permits in the Arctic and that it prevent drilling in the
sensitive area until it is determined that the environment can
be fully protected.
Ocean conservation group Oceana also called on the
department to stop oil drilling activities in the Arctic after
the Kulluk's grounding.
Shell has spent $4.5 billion since 2005 to develop the
Arctic's vast oil reserves, but the company has faced intense
opposition from environmentalists and native groups as well as
regulatory and technical hurdles.
The company has yet to complete a single well and gave up on
plans to explore for oil last year after its required oil spill
containment system was damaged during tests.
Shell stressed the incident with Kulluk was a "marine
transit issue" that did not involve actual drilling.
"It is possible to drill safely offshore Alaska, as our 2012
record shows," Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said in a
Shell was allowed to perform some preparatory drilling in
the Arctic last year.
The company said it takes the Kulluk incident seriously and
is participating in a probe of the incident with the Coast Guard
and other companies involved.
Even without government action, the grounding of the Kulluk
could threaten Shell's 2013 drilling timetable because its
oil-spill plans require a second rig to be available at all
times in case a relief well needs to be drilled to kill a well.
The Discoverer, owned by Noble Corp, is Shell's other
Alaska rig. The Kulluk, while owned by Shell, is operated by
While Shell has made the most progress toward exploring
offshore Alaska for oil, ConocoPhillips also has
significant holdings in the Chukchi Sea.
ConocoPhillips paid more than $500 million in 2008 for
leases in the area and has said it plans to drill an exploration
well in the Chukchi in 2014 or later.
Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey, the top Democrat on
the House Natural Resources committee, also voiced concerns
about Shell's fitness to operate in the Arctic.
"This is just the most recent incident in Shell's attempt to
drill offshore in the Arctic and it raises serious questions
about the company's ability to conduct these operations safely
and in a way that protects the environment," Markey, an
outspoken critic of oil and gas companies, said in a letter to
Markey asked the company to provide him with any plans it
has developed to deal with severe weather in the region and for
information about how the company plans to prevent similar
accidents in the future.