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Drilling for oil in Arctic Ocean is fraught with danger

This month the US approved four wells for drilling by Shell Oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska, an energy frontier. But Shell's plan to recover after an oil spill is completely inadequate, given the region's remoteness and weather.

By Emilie Surrusco / August 17, 2011


More than a year later after the BP oil spill, the environmental degradation from the Deepwater Horizon disaster lingers in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil can still be found on nearly 500 miles of Gulf coastline, and an enormous dead zone remains at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

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Yet most Americans have moved on from images of the burning rig, oiled birds, and the 11 men who lost their lives. And in a crucial and dangerous way, Washington has also moved on.

Early this month, the Obama administration approved Shell Oil’s plans to drill four exploratory wells in America’s Arctic Ocean. Shell’s plans are the most aggressive to date in a region largely untouched by humankind and where there has never been significant ocean drilling. The approval was given, despite the fact that there is no proven way to clean up oil spilled in an icy environment.

To the people of the Arctic coast, the images from the Gulf are foremost in their mind as they wonder how long it will be until their pristine Arctic experiences a devastating spill. True, Shell’s drilling – expected to start next summer – will be in shallow water with an average depth of 160 feet, compared to the 5,000 feet of the Gulf disaster. But the Arctic’s extreme conditions and remoteness bring challenges and obstacles that are unknown in Gulf.

Shell maintains it will be able to clean up 95 percent of any oil spilled in the Arctic using mechanical recovery. Yet this rate of success has never come close to being achieved – anywhere. In the Deepwater Horizon spill, the mechanical recovery rate was close to 3 percent. With the Exxon Valdez, it was 8 percent.

Standard clean-up methods won't work in Arctic

Robert Thompson, who lives in Kaktovik, a small Inupiat community on the coast of the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea – where Shell got provisional approval to drill – believes that Shell’s drilling plans must have been approved by people who don’t know the Arctic. Even in the summer months, conditions can be so foreboding that it wouldn’t be possible to mount an oil-spill response effort.

A recent report for the Canadian government reinforces this point. In the Canadian Beaufort Sea, conditions (precluding sea ice) in June – the tamest month on the Arctic calendar – would keep spill response efforts from being launched 20 percent of the time. September and October? Forget about it. Despite this, Shell plans call for drilling beginning in July and continuing through Oct. 31.


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