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.

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.

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.

Despite warnings that global warming is accelerating the melting of the Arctic, sea ice is still found in the Arctic Ocean every month of the year. Arctic seas are far from placid. Even in the summer months, hurricane-like storms form 20-foot waves and create conditions that are so harsh that human beings often cannot step outside.

Then there’s the Arctic’s remoteness. The nearest deepwater port and Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away. That’s roughly the distance between Washington, DC and New Orleans. Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp recently told Congress “we have nothing” when it comes to the resources and capability to respond to an oil spill in the Arctic.

Importantly, no one has been able to come up with a workable way to clean up oil in ice. Shell’s spill plan includes techniques that are familiar to anyone who followed the Deepwater Horizon disaster – in situ burning, dispersants, booms – methods that were difficult to implement in the Gulf’s calm, temperate seas, close to modern infrastructure.

When oil companies tested some of these approaches in the Arctic (over 10 years ago), the experiment was declared a “failure.” Since then, nothing has changed in Arctic oil-spill response technology.

US says not enough known about the Arctic

What’s more, America’s own science experts – the United States Geological Survey – say it’s “difficult, if not impossible” to make informed decisions about drilling in the Arctic because too much remains unknown about the Arctic’s marine environment and the wildlife that depend on it.

This week, in Point Hope, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea where Shell also hopes to drill, Inupiat people from all over Alaska’s Arctic coast are coming together for one simple reason – to pass on the ways of the past to the future.

Community elders are sitting down with young people to teach them the traditions that have enabled them to survive in the harsh climate for thousands of years.

Point Hope itself, a small spit of land jutting into Earth’s northernmost ocean, is the oldest continually inhabited community in North America – people have lived and thrived there since long before the planet was divvied up by nation states.

But the air there is not filled with defeat. As Inupiat leader Rosemary Ahtuangaruak said: “I will continue to speak out for my people with the hope that future generations will continue to be Inupiat – and not just residents in an industrialized area destroyed by drilling.”

The Obama administration should not rush forward with drilling in the Arctic Ocean until Shell can provide a proven plan to clean up an oil spill, and until there is more scientific information about the impacts drilling could have in this pristine, unique place.

Emilie Surrusco is the communications director for the Alaska Wilderness League.

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