WASHINGTON – In the latest in a series of reckless decisions about America’s Arctic Ocean, the Obama administration on December 16 gave Royal Dutch Shell the green light to drill in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea beginning next summer – despite the fact that there is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s extreme conditions and there is significant dearth of scientific information, making it impossible to understand the impacts of Shell’s activities.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced conditional approval of Shell’s plan to drill six exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 and 2013. This decision follows on the heels of the Obama administration’s controversial approval of exploratory drilling in the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea, also beginning in the summer of 2012. However, before Shell can actually begin drilling the administration still must approve a series of permits – including a final APD or “application for permit to drill.”
The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, pervasive sea ice, frigid temperatures and months-long darkness. There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in these extreme conditions. What’s more, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure to provide the support and equipment needed for a spill. Administration officials themselves have expressed concerns about spill response in the Arctic. Admiral Robert Papp, the top officer at the U.S. Coast Guard, recently told Congress that if the Deepwater Horizon disaster was “to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we’d have nothing. We’re starting from ground zero today.”
“The administration needs a realistic oil spill response and recovery plan before exposing this unique region with its fragile wildlife to an oil disaster we are unlikely to be able to control.”
The last public spill drill in the Arctic – that tested booms and skimmers and other conventional methods of oil spill cleanup in partial sea ice conditions in 2000 – was deemed a failure.
In addition, scientists, courts, communities, and, most recently, the U.S. Geological Survey, have identified basic missing scientific information that makes it impossible to fully and fairly evaluate Shell’s plans.
Since the BP Gulf tragedy in 2010, the federal government instituted a capping and containment requirement for well blowouts that requires containment be in place within 15 days. Shell has not built or tested under Arctic conditions such a structure.
Alaska Native communities have existed in the Arctic for thousands of years, alongside myriad species of wildlife including polar bears, bowhead whales, walrus, ice seals and hundreds of species of birds. An oil spill in these Arctic waters would destroy vital habitat for this wildlife as well as the subsistence lifestyle that sustains the Inupiat people of Alaska’s Arctic coast.
Defenders’ president and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark said, “America’s Arctic Ocean is a pristine and fragile environment. Its importance to the survival of polar bears, bowhead whales and other marine life is too great to hand over to Big Oil given the inadequate assurances of safety. The administration needs a realistic oil spill response and recovery plan before exposing this unique region with its fragile wildlife to an oil disaster we are unlikely to be able to control.”