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Working in Alaska

There are many examples that demonstrate our dedication to protecting the environment. For example, Shell banned the use of Styrofoam cups onboard any Alaska operating company owned or contracted vessel in order to assure cups do not blow into the water.

A larger demonstration of this commitment is the Marine Mammal Monitoring and Mitigation Plan. This plan places Marine Mammal Observers and Inupiat Communicators on industry vessels to monitor for the presence of marine mammals, maintain a marine mammal-free operation zone, monitor and record marine mammal behaviors and communicate with the village Communication Centers. These centers then provide activity information to whalers and industry to avoid and minimize potential conflicts with subsistence hunting.

Oil Spill Prevention

Through experience with previous exploration programs in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea regions, Shell has a proven record of meeting the challenges of drilling under extreme Arctic conditions many miles from populated centers. The goal of no spills is one of our highest priorities, along with the safety of personnel and a sincere effort to recognize the concerns of the people who live near and depend upon the resources in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

Proper planning and sound procedures are the keys to creating a world-class, safe and reliable oil spill prevention and contingency plan that addresses numerous operational factors in open water and a broad range of ice conditions.  Shell employees multi-tiered layers of prevention in order to make certain that no single incident leads to the worst-case blowout scenario. 

This planning includes: 

  • A thorough understanding of oil and ice interactions
  • A Critical Operations and Curtailment Plan with strict procedures in place to monitor weather and hazardous ice conditions
  • The acquisition of rugged, state-of-the-art equipment that can be activated immediately and continue to operate for extended periods in open water and broken ice conditions
  • The training and experience of response personnel to work safely and effectively under harsh conditions
  • A comprehensive assessment of all applicable countermeasures (e.g., mechanical recovery, removal, tracking and monitoring) that are proven to be reliable in extreme cold climates
  • The identification and preparation of specific response strategies and tactics that could be implemented safely and effectively under a broad range of conditions including: drifting floes at break-up, open water, summer ice incursions and new ice at freeze-up

Oil Spill Response

Oil spills of any kind are exceeding rare in exploration drilling and production activities.  In fact, only 1% of oil discharges in North American waters are related to oil production, and only a fraction of those few incidents involve drilling.  The main source of oil in the ocean is naturally occurring oil seeps. 

But Shell is prepared and has tested its plan against multiple conditions.  That's why we have created an unprecedented 24/7 onsite oil spill response capability on the North Slope with a fleet of specialized vessels, barges, booms, helicopter and other equipment to be on-location prior to the start of any drilling.  No other company has ever deployed the immediate, onsite response resources here that Shell has.

In addition to the creation of our oil spill response capacity, Shell has made numerous plans for dealing with oil in ice and have practiced specialized techniques for capturing, containing, and dealing with it in the unlikely event of a spill.

The Ice Environment

With a strong knowledge of the Arctic environment, Shell has developed a flexible grouping of containment, recovery and storage strategies that take advantage of weather, wind and sea conditions, and ice composition in order to increase the window of opportunity for effective response.

The timing and duration of the break-up and freeze-up periods, as well as the boundaries of the different ice zones, can differ greatly from year to year. Response tactics are selected with a full awareness of the constraints imposed by rapidly changing environmental conditions.

Marine Mammal Monitoring & Mitigation

We had a very successful year of scientific research.  Through a combination of acoustic recorders, aerial overflights, vessel observations and tagging programs, Shell continues to acquire first-of-its data in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas as well as help to fill the gaps in historical data.  We have spent tens-of-millions on science programs since 2006.

To help understand how industrial noise may affect marine life, Shell employs an extensive Marine Mammal Monitoring and Mitigation Program (4MP), a vast network of seafloor acoustic recorders and sophisticated software that survey migration patterns.  These methods provide a larger number of detections than the more common aerial surveys because they can operate day and night in harsh weather and ice conditions.

One goal of the surveys has been to determine how noise from activities such as seismic surveys affects whale migrations.  Preliminary findings suggest that while Bowhead whales do change their behavior in active seismic areas, they are deflected off course temporarily and return to their migration course within a few kilometers.

Scientific studies and technical reviews also indicate that the potential for harm to various benthic (bottom dwelling) organisms, fish and marine mammals from exposure to acoustic energy from seismic sources is very low and only occurs when the animals are in close proximity (six to eight feet, or two meters) to the seismic source.

Baseline Studies

In addition to the 4MP, Shell has made a significant investment in a broad range of baseline studies, which will continue throughout our long commitment.  Our studies establish a baseline for marine mammal population data, ecological biodiversity and environmental conditions so that we can evaluate and mitigate impacts on the region as we move forward with our operations.

These studies, which are performed in close consultation with Inupiat advisors, include:

  • Tagging programs for seals, walrus and polar bears
  • Coastal stability surveys
  • Seafloor sediment
  • Air and water quality testing
  • Analyses of birds, fish and benthic organisms


Oil and gas operations produce different types of discharges that must be properly managed to prevent or minimize environmental damage.  These include:

  • Rock cuttings
  • Drill mud
  • Produced water
  • Water for cooling equipment
  • Ballast water
  • Domestic and sanitary waste

How the discharges are managed depends on things like climate and sea floor terrain.  Shell’s measures are based on more than 30 years of research in arctic waters.  Shell meets or voluntarily exceeds all regulatory requirements concerning these discharges.

Shell is committed to zero-harmful discharge.  Our drilling mud uses water as the base fluid with natural clays, polymers and other environmentally friendly chemicals that can be found in products such as cosmetics.   

After extensive research, we have determined the best solution for our Beaufort and Chukchi Sea exploration programs is to discharge the muds and cuttings onsite.  Of the 30 exploration wells previously drilled in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea, five wells in the Chukchi Sea and more than 90 wells in the Canadian Beaufort, all but one discharged mud and cuttings to the ocean floor.  The one exception was drilled from a gravel island, which followed onshore practices because of its nearshore location.