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Shell's Oil Spill in Nigeria Fuels Alaska's Offshore Oil Controversy

December 22, 2011

Opponents of Shell Oil’s plans to explore for oil in arctic waters say Alaskans should pay attention to what’s happening in Nigeria, where Shell has shut down its Bonga Oil Field.

The well is located about 75 miles offshore, but Shell says it wasn’t the source of a spill that sent about 1.7 million gallons of oil flowing into the ocean.

Shell says the fuel spilled on Tuesday, while it was loaded onto a tanker.

Since then, it’s spread about 115 nautical miles and is expected to reach Nigeria’s beaches on Thursday.

“This just underscores the fact that people make mistakes, equipment fails and the industry and government traditionally understate this risk,” said Richard Steiner, a former UAA professor and environmental activist.

“What happens in Nigeria should concern people with the arctic,” said Steiner.  

Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Oil, says the two situations are very different.

“While the spill in Nigeria is extremely unfortunate, it’s important to keep in mind that there was no loss of life, and really there’s no correlation between the oil transfer to a tanker that led to the spill in Nigeria to the explorations wells that we have in Alaska,” said Smith. 

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Shell says it’s plugged the leak and about half of the oil has already evaporated. 

Smith says that the Nigerian spill needs to be kept in perspective – that Shell transports billions of barrels of oil almost everywhere on the globe, and this latest spill in Nigeria doesn’t reflect the integrity of Shell’s overall operations. 

“It's also important to keep in mind that we are in the exploration phase,” said Smith of Shell’s plans for Alaska’s arctic waters.  “We’ve always said we will never bring hydrocarbons to the surface in this particular phase.  What we're talking about in Nigeria is production from a free-standing,floating rig, buoys and hoses. And that's not our intention for Alaska at all.”

Steiner says he’s worried about what happens after the oil is developed and believes that tankers might be introduced. Steiner also says the differences between what Shell plans for Alaska and what it does in Nigeria aren't the real issue.

“Shell asserts in their global corporate standards that they apply the same highest, best available standards all over the world, where they do business.  So they are essentially saying that their standards in Alaska will be equivalent to the standards in Nigeria and look what happened there.” 

Shell’s onshore operations in Nigeria have been controversial.  A United Nations report blames Shell and the Nigerian government for polluting the Niger Delta,  It says the clean-up could take three decades.

Shell has maintained that those oil leaks have been caused by thieves trying to steal crude oil. 

“We remain confident of our drilling expertise, the thorough plans we have in place and ability to operate safely and in an environmentally responsible manner in Alaska, “said Smith.  “Our plans and activities have undergone the most rigorous review performed by offshore regulators of any planned offshore oil and gas project in the U.S.”

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