In the late 1990s, with the price of oil less than $10 a barrel and high costs to build platforms and pipelines in the remote Arctic, Shell walked away from its leases.
In federal waters offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell has had 22 spills of at least 2,100 gallons of oil, drilling mud, fuels or chemicals between 2000 and 2010, according to an analysis of statistics kept by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
That's two fewer than BP and three more than Chevron, the other big operator there.
Shell's work in Cook Inlet in the 1990s generated sharp complaints from environmentalists over its handling of wastewater generated on its platforms.
The company was able to settle the complaints in part by paying into a fund for the creation of Cook Inletkeeper, an environmental watchdog group. Shell's share of the blame, as measured by the settlement, was a relatively small $48,000.
Marathon and Unocal, two other big operators of oil and gas platforms in Cook Inlet at the time, split the bulk of the $895,000 for Cook Inletkeeper's creation, according to an agreement filed in court. The three companies also paid a combined $194,000 in federal civil penalties under the deal.
Shell had a reputation as a good performer overall, said Mark MacIntyre, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which brought its own claims against the operators and helped negotiate the settlement.
Shell maintains that the allegations were exaggerated. The producers changed some practices and moved on, said Curtis Smith, the Shell spokesman for Alaska. The continued strong salmon runs in Cook Inlet illustrate its health, he said.
But environmentalists said the case reflects on Shell.
"There were definitely discharges of toxic substances," said Pam Miller, a former Greenpeace research biologist who now heads Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
In the U.K., Shell is drawing fresh scrutiny after an August pipeline leak that ranks as the biggest North Sea spill in a decade. A pipeline from a Shell platform 110 miles off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland, leaked about 55,000 gallons of oil.
The case grabbed headlines around the world. The spill "tarnished Britain's reputation for avoiding such problems," The New York Times reported.
"They cannot come into Alaska and pretend they have an impeccable record," said Rick Steiner, a marine conservation biologist and former University of Alaska professor who has watched Shell for years, especially in Nigeria.
Although it did inform regulators, Shell did not tell the public about the North Sea spill for two days. Environmentalists accused Shell of trying to keep it hush-hush.
Shell says it wanted to understand the problem first, but some executives agree that holding back was a mistake.
"If it were my operation, we would have done it immediately," said Slaiby, Shell's vice president for Alaska.
Efforts to stop the North Sea spill were complicated by subsea conditions on an old pipe surrounded by marine growth. After the sheen was spotted from the air, the well was shut in and the line depressurized, Shell said. But a relief valve opened to release the pressure failed to re-close completely and a small amount of oil continued to seep. The oil stopped leaking after divers closed the valve, nine days after the spill began.
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