Still, Shell learned and became more cautious after system failures, including that one, he said.
"Overall in terms of industry and being able to handle these kinds of complex systems - and I include the arctic environment in those systems - Shell is among the best in the world," Bea said.
In the mid-2000s, Shell planned to build a liquefied natural gas terminal offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The terminal was designed to suck up hundreds of millions of gallons of seawater a day in the process of warming and vaporizing the super-chilled liquid gas. Eggs and larva in the water would have been killed.
Environmentalists mobilized against the "open loop" design. A group went to The Hague in the Netherlands to protest at a Shell shareholder meeting. Others railed about different issues, including Shell's troubles in Nigeria. People waved signs. Protesters took to the mic. As Viles, the activist with the Gulf Restoration Network, remembers it, Shell let them all vent.
About the same time, Greenpeace activists were going after Exxon at its annual meeting in Dallas.
"My friends from Greenpeace were getting arrested, and Shell was greeting us with coffee and chocolate and inviting us to stay after the meeting to drink Heineken at the bar with their executives," Viles said.
It wasn't just to smooth things over -- Shell wanted to hear what they had to say, he said.
Ultimately, Shell dropped the project. An executive flew to New Orleans to tell the environmental opposition before announcing the decision publicly.
But in a different case, according to Viles, Shell flubbed it.
A large coalition of environmentalists, fishermen, corporate watchdogs and others - including some Alaskans -- confronted Shell in 2008 about a growing and expensive problem: the rapid loss of wetland in coastal Louisiana. Scientists have found that dredging for oil and gas pipelines was one of the chief contributors to the loss, the group, led by the Gulf Restoration Network, said in a November 2008 letter.
"Shell, we are asking you to act to restore the wetlands that have been damaged due to your oil and gas exploration and development in Louisiana," the group said. It wanted Shell to pay up to $362 million for restoration efforts.
Shell replied with a form letter.
"Thank you for your recent inquiry requesting our financial support," the "Dear Applicant" denial said. "Your inquiry, unfortunately, falls outside the scope of our current guidelines for grant-making."
Viles said he followed up with Shell, but didn't get much more of a response.
Meanwhile, Shell has its name as world sponsor on an effort called America's Wetland Foundation. The initiative, which includes a variety of businesses and environmental groups, puts attention on problems arising from the loss of Mississippi River Delta wetland and advocates for solutions.
The group supports federal funding for restoration of the wetland.
Shell executives stress that the company has a history of operating safely in Alaska.
The company drilled four exploration wells in the Chukchi Sea and 15 in the Beaufort Sea; it was the biggest player in the frigid north in the 1980s and early '90s.
While there were some small spills of fuels and crude, almost all of it was cleaned up, according to a federal environmental assessment of Shell's current plans. There was no big spill, no blown-out well, no environmental disaster.
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