You know how in movies there’s sometimes a moment after some cataclysm in which the protagonist sits up in bed or steps out of a doorway, rubs his eyes, and the sun is shining? All around him are crumbled buildings and cars missing doors, but he looks up and the air is still and the sun is out and you, the audience, understand that something has changed. The terror is behind us.

Well, sit up in bed and rub your eyes. From the Times:

In another blow to its Alaskan Arctic drilling program, Royal Dutch Shell said on Monday that it had decided to tow its two drill vessels there to Asian ports for major repairs, jeopardizing its plans to begin drilling for oil in the icy northern seas next summer.

The new potential delay in drilling does not necessarily doom Shell’s seven-year, $4.5 billion quest to open a new oil frontier in the far north, but it may strengthen the position of environmentalists who have repeatedly sued to stop or postpone exploration that they claim carries the risks of a spill nearly impossible to clean up. …

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For drilling to proceed, two vessels are needed, one to stand by to drill relief wells in case of a blowout. It would be difficult to find other suitable ships for drilling in the Arctic.


kullukresponseThe Kulluk during happier times.

The two vessels Shell is sending out for repair are the Kulluk — which ran aground in December, damaging its hull — and the Noble Discoverer — which escaped its moorings and almost ran aground, but needs fixes to its propulsion systems.

It is amusing (and largely warranted) to blame Shell for all of these mistakes. It is also worth questioning the role that the Arctic itself played. The vessels are old (the Times notes that the Kulluk was built in 1983; Discoverer in 1966), but the Arctic is also a notoriously harsh environment. One of the long-standing objections to drilling there is how hard it is to mobilize resources in a remote and forbidding environment, concerns reiterated loudly after the Kulluk grounding.

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Shell is retreating, tail between its legs — at least for 2013. The company’s move into the region was something of an exploration anyway, the Vasco de Gama of Arctic oil drilling. The Arctic will someday be teeming with activity as the ice recedes; The Economist magazine is hosting a conference in Oslo next month titled, “Arctic Summit: A new vista for trade, energy, and the environment.” Shell wanted to be first; no one expected it to be the only one there.

Which brings us back to the movie analogy. Sometimes, when our hero is taking his first calm breath in days, closing his eyes to feel the sun on his face, free from the threats he’s defeated, another, bigger enemy is lurking just out of sight. In a moment, the hero’s eyes snap open, and the fight resumes.

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