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Alaska Editorial: Kulluk provides lesson in humility, Murphy's law

Posted: January 17, 2013 - 1:14am

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

“If there is to be a path forward with respect to offshore energy development in the Arctic it would be wise not only for Shell but for all oil companies attempting to engage this challenging environment to temper their path with the prudent and more productive human quality of humility.”

— veteran marine pilot Peter Garay, in a May 2010 Anchorage Daily News Compass commentary

There once was an oil company named Humble, but it’s not a quality most of us associate with the industry. High-stakes risk is inherent in oil exploration, so the industry naturally has people willing and able to take chances.

But as Peter Garay pointed out in his Compass, the owners of the New Bedford Arctic whaling fleet had some of the same mentality when they dared the Arctic in 1871. Thirty-three of 40 ships were crushed by an early ice and sunk. The owners said the ice was a once in a hundred years phenomenon. Five years later the fleet tried again. Early ice trapped more ships and finished off the Arctic venture.

The lesson? Don’t underestimate the forces of nature, and don’t overestimate your own ability to deal with them.

Shell Alaska arguably can measure its risks better than could the men seeking oil from whales in the 19th century. They have a wealth of information the whalers couldn’t imagine. They have the means to hire some of the best mariners, meteorologists, vessels and crews on the planet.

As the Kulluk grounding showed, that’s still no guarantee.

Unlike some of Shell’s critics Outside, we know the Gulf isn’t the Arctic, the Beaufort isn’t the Bering, Wainwright isn’t Dutch. But geography isn’t the issue here. It’s Shell’s judgment and operations.

Those who have sailed the Gulf of Alaska say you can’t put faith in weather forecasts beyond three days max. When the forces of nature bore down on the Kulluk and its towing vessels, it should not have been a surprise.

Add to forces of nature the hazards of Murphy’s law — “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Nobody expected all four engines on the Aiviq, the muscular rig especially built for Shell’s Arctic work, to go out at once. Exactly what led to that failure will get a hard look by investigators for both the feds and the company. Those investigations should get down to details — fuel filters and tow lines, tug deployment and sailing routes.

Murphy’s law can foul the best laid plans, lay waste to all the computer modeling and risk management systems you can muster.

The only safeguard to that is unblinking, hard-nosed vigilance. No assumptions, everything checked and double-checked. Errors should be on the side of prudence and going slower. That’s the only sound way to explore in the Arctic, with exacting standards rigorously enforced.

Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered up a review of Shell’s performance in the 2012 drilling season, which should be done in 60 days. Shell appeared to manage its limited drilling well. But its first season also included incidents and delays that did not inspire confidence — the drift of the Noble Discoverer near Dutch Harbor, the failure of its containment system in a calm seas test, the Aiviq engine failures and the decision to try the Gulf in a season known for wicked seas and maximum strain on vessels.

The Interior review is a good idea. Interior’s policy has been all-ahead slow with Arctic exploration under tough standards. Alaska’s congressional delegation has sometimes been critical of Interior as obstructionist. Interior should stick to its guns — and our delegation should expect no less.

By all accounts the Coast Guard, Shell, the Army and all hands involved did tremendous work to save lives and the environment once the Kulluk went aground. They deserve their due and our thanks for that, especially the Coast Guard.

But that rescue and recovery shouldn’t be confused with victory or vindication. The response was superb damage control, with a dash of luck. For quite some time nature was in control of the Kulluk, not Shell or its contractors. This should be a sobering reminder of the wisdom that marine pilot Peter Garay offered three years ago — wisdom that pays from the Gulf of Alaska to the edge of the Arctic ice.

Kulluk grounding is a warning to Shell and the rest of us.

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