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Testing a mechanical skimmer for cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic (SINTEF photo).

Testing a mechanical skimmer for cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic (SINTEF photo).

We have built an industry-leading capability in preventing spills and in our readiness to respond to any that occur. We regularly test our plans and preparedness, and take part in large-scale joint exercises with other industry partners, government agencies, scientists and oil spill experts. 

Our oil spill prevention capability includes multiple redundancy: if any system or device fails, a back-up system or device immediately takes over to prevent a loss of well control. For our drilling operations in Alaska, we have a robust response programme consisting of a dedicated on-site fleet, near-shore barges and response vessels and onshore response teams. And, in the unlikely event of a worst case scenario, we have developed technologies that can track and remove spilled oil from solid and broken ice.

The wells we hope to drill in Alaska in the coming years are in shallow water, at a depth of around 50 metres, which also means low pressure. They are more accessible than wells in the Gulf of Mexico for example, which lie at considerably greater depths of about 3,000 m. As stipulated by government-issued permits, Shell and other exploration companies can only undertake drilling during the relatively ice-free summer months.

The oil and gas industry has a strong safety record in Arctic waters. Over the past 50 years, Shell and other companies have drilled more than 500 exploratory and production wells in the seas off Alaska, Canada, Norway and Russia.

The Joint Industry Programme on Arctic Spill Research

In 2012, the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers established its Arctic Response Technology Joint Industry Programme (IOGP ART JIP). Shell is a leading member of the programme, which brings together the world’s foremost experts on oil spill response research, development and operations from across industry, academia and independent research centres.

The four-year programme is investing more than $20 million in further improving response technologies. It conducts research internationally into dispersant use, environmental effects, trajectory modelling, remote sensing, mechanical recovery and in-situ burning. 

The programme has committed to sharing its oil spill response research findings with governments, academia, communities and others.

Read more about the IOGP ART JIP

This joint industry programme builds upon significant progress made by existing scientific research and development in Arctic and subarctic cold weather oil spill response. This includes a recently completed programme conducted by the Norwegian research institute SINTEF, in which Shell participated and provided funding.

Read more about SINTEF

Ready to respond

The industry is advancing, building on decades of studies and operations in Arctic and subarctic regions. During our first Alaska offshore drilling season in 2012, for example, Shell deployed a three-tier system to respond to potential offshore, near-shore and onshore/shoreline spills, with qualified Alaska personnel who conduct drills regularly. 

The response system we developed includes dedicated oil spill response vessels and equipment available at an hour’s notice, 24 hours a day. Response options include in-situ burning, use of dispersants and mechanical removal – all supported by extensive equipment deployment and crew training. Research is ongoing by both governments and industry to further improve these methods.

In the unlikely event that we lost control of a well, Shell’s response capability includes a subsea capping system designed to make metal-to-metal contact with a compromised wellhead. This shuts the well in and cuts the flow of hydrocarbons. As an additional level of redundancy, Shell can deploy an Arctic containment system designed to capture hydrocarbons at, and just above, a compromised wellhead. These are secured in a containment structure and then pumped to a floating storage and processing vessel. 

In Alaska, Greenland, Russia and Norway, Shell and its joint venture partners have put robust oil spill response plans into place. These are reviewed and approved by the relevant government agencies, with input from other government departments and regulators.