After 10 days of spillage, the oil leak from the Shell-operated Gannet Alpha platform in the North Sea has now been stopped.  The 1300 barrels spilt by Shell — described by the UK government as a “substantial” incident — is the worst seen in the North Sea for a decade and has opened up fresh doubts about the safety and accountability of the oil extraction industry.

In a pattern that is becoming all too familiar with energy companies (think BP in the Gulf of Mexico and Tepco at Fukushima), Shell foolishly kept the spill secret for several days and then took even more time to provide sufficient information to assess the seriousness of the accident. In its corporate communications around the incident, Shell also declined to use the expression “oil slick”, preferring the more positive sounding term “sheen”.  (One can just imagine a Competitive Enterprise Institute ad campaign: “They call it pollution.  We call it putting a gloss on the ocean.”)  The result was a public relations debacle for the company.

The Gannet spill comes at a crucial time for Shell as the company tries to convince a sceptical public that it can be trusted with oil extraction in the Arctic.  Shell is a major player in the grab for Arctic resources, a rush for riches that is being bitterly opposed by the environmental movement.  According to one informed observer, whether the exploitation of Arctic oil reserves can be stopped “may prove to be the defining environmental battle of this decade”, with profound implications for climate change and for the wildlife of the icy north.

A significant oil spill in the Arctic would be environmentally devastating because of the fragile nature of the ecosystem, with the consequences exacerbated by the inability to take action in the forbidding operational environment.  According to confidential documents leaked from the UK government, an Arctic oil spill would be impossible to clear up.  The commandant of the US Coast Guard has admitted that he has “zero” capacity to remedy the situation should such a disaster take place in the US’s Arctic waters.

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Shell is approaching the battle for the Arctic armed with a soft public relations strategy, dedicated to giving the impression of openness and dialogue.  For example, on Shell’s own website, in response to the question “[c]an Arctic development be carried out safely?” (unsurprisingly Shell thinks it can) the company has included a statement from 19 NGOs opposed to exploration of the northern polar region.  Clearly this is a company dedicated to creating the appearance of sincere engagement — though billions of dollars worth of investment decisions suggest a rather more closed corporate mind.  Just this month, the US’s offshore drilling regulator approved Shell’s oil exploration plan for Alaska’s Beaufort Sea

In the middle of the Gannett spill, Shell dared to hold an online “dialogue” on the subject of “developing Arctic resources safely and strongly”.  It must have seemed like a good public relations exercise in the planning, but in the course of the actual event, a tag team of Shell executives failed to answer a range of critical questions (summarised here) and declined substantive discussion about the current spill in the North Sea.

Elsewhere Shell has acknowledged that the “Arctic is rich in biodiversity and contains ecologically sensitive areas” and has made the reassuring statement that “[w]e have policies in place to assess environmental risks and we closely monitor the impact of our activities”.  Among the various brief entries on how the company claims it will act in accordance with this recognition is the helpful annotation that staff are trained on how to avoid polar bears.  As I’ve remarked elsewhere, all entirely for the good of the polar bears no doubt.

Needless to say, a giant fossil-fuel company claiming to be acting in an environmentally responsible fashion by part funding research in to “how polar bears are responding to changes in their habitat as a result of climate change” is ironic and ridiculous.  The irony is compounded in the case of Shell, which has pursued a deeply cynical role in subverting debates over climate change and the world’s energy future (a recent post by Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation in London on this subject is a revealing read).

The really damning thing about the Gannett spill for Shell is that the North Sea is considered a tame and well-run area — effectively one of the oil industry’s backyards.  But if a company such as Shell can’t guarantee safety in the North Sea, then it hardly bodes well for the Arctic.  If a bull can’t even be trusted in its own paddock, then it should hardly be allowed in the ecological equivalent of a china shop.