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Science & Environment

Greenpeace Activists Protest Shell Oil's Plan To Drill In The Arctic Ocean

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Thirteen environmental activist from the group Greenpeace are dangling off a bridge in Portland, Ore. They've rappelled off the St. Johns Bridge and are settled on platforms and hammocks above the Willamette River with signs reading Shell no. The protesters plan to stay up there for days. They're trying to block Shell Oil's plan to drill in the Arctic Ocean by keeping a Shell icebreaker from leaving Portland. To talk more about Shell's plans for drilling in Alaska, I'm joined by John Ryan. He's with member station KUCB in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. He's in the city of Unalaska. And John, Shell already has drilling rigs and vessels up in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. What's the importance of this icebreaker that's in Portland?

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: This icebreaker, the Fennica, has a piece of equipment on it called a capping stack that Shell hopes to use in case an oil well should blowout. And without that capping stack, they don't have federal permission to drill for oil. They're allowed to drill but not all the way into the oil bearing layers of rock. So until they can get that capping stack in the Fennica to ship back up in place, they can't drill for oil in the Arctic.

BLOCK: And they're working against a clock here - right? - a pretty narrow timeframe?

RYAN: Right. They have federal permission to drill only during the brief Arctic summer until late September, in this case because the risk of ice coming back and interfering with the drilling or making it really difficult to clean up an oil spill is much greater after the summer.

BLOCK: And Shell has been granted drilling permits by the Obama administration. A lot of environmentalists have been very unhappy about that. There are other restrictions though. What are some of those?

RYAN: Right. The Interior Department told Shell it can only drill one site at a time. Shell had planned to go for two at once, but the Interior Department said because of the possible danger to walruses from all that drilling noise, you can only drill one of your locations at a time.

BLOCK: What is Shell's history with drilling in the Arctic?

RYAN: They have a long history. Most recently, in 2012, they put a lot of effort into it, and they had a lot of mishaps. They had a drill rig run aground. It eventually had to be sent to a scrap yard in China. So environmentalists say that that track record proves that Shell doesn't know what it's doing. They don't have the ability to drill safely in the Arctic. Shell - and if - the U.S. government say that they have a new plan that's better and safer and they have the ability to drill safely in this remote and fairly hostile location.

BLOCK: How much oil does Shell think that they could get from the Arctic? What's the value of that?

RYAN: Well, the value to Shell - they've put about $7 billion into the effort to find this oil. They think it's one of the biggest undiscovered oil reserves - energy reserves anywhere in the world. And they think it could actually boost U.S. energy supplies a lot in the years down the road when they actually got oil through the pipeline. And environmentalists say that it's just too dangerous a location to be drilling in between the difficulty of cleaning an oil spill in the very remote Arctic Ocean and just the general danger of climate change from all that oil being burned.

BLOCK: John, I know the communities in Alaska are quite split over the wisdom of drilling in the Arctic and what it would mean. What have you been hearing from people in your time there?

RYAN: There's a lot of support here in this town because it's kind of a one-industry town around fishing. And the support for Arctic drilling could be a way to diversify the economy, especially if it's a multiyear effort. So there's a lot of support in this town. There were protests here but much smaller than the very large protests we've seen in Seattle and in Portland.

BLOCK: John Ryan, thanks so much for talking to us.

RYAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: John Ryan is with member station KUCB in Unalaska. That's in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.