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The administration must protect the Arctic Ocean from a Gulf-like oil disaster

Chuck Clusen

Posted August 10, 2010

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There is word on the street that a final decision is imminent from the administration on whether or how to change its Five Year Plan for offshore drilling (2007-2012). And we’re hearing that the Obama Administration may be close to making some fundamental decisions about the protection of the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas drilling. 

There’s been a lot of action on Arctic drilling by the courts recently: The courts have twice said that the Interior Department under the Bush Administration did not act to protect the Arctic Ocean (including both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas). And the DC Circuit Court issued an injunction on the 2005 to 2012 five year leasing plan of the MMS due to errors of analysis—in particular the required “sensitivity analysis” for the Arctic basin.

Also recently, however, the Alaska District Court issued an injunction on Lease Sale # 193, which was conducted by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) under the Bush Administration in February of 2008 and sold 215 leases to a number of large oil companies. The mandate came as a result of MMS’s failure to consider the implications of not just oil, but natural gas production that would likely go with it, and had not addressed a very long list of questions about the sale, including failing to identify which concerns could be addressed using existing science, technology and financial resources and which could not. The administration, however, then went back to the court and obtained permission to allow Statoil to proceed with seismic activities this summer on their Chukchi leases. That’s not an encouraging action! 

Obama’s Interior Department may announce their decision as soon as tomorrow on the five year plan case. In a draft released a few months ago they proposed not to hold any more lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi under the existing five year plan that runs until 2012, to withdraw Bristol Bay from potential leasing, but to leave the leases from Lease Sale #193 in place.  

We believe this would be a very problematic outcome, but the tea leaves suggest the final plan may likely look a lot like the draft.  If this is correct, the leases from Lease Sale # 193 would be left in place, which could lead to oil development and production of the Chukchi Leases.  That would be a most unfortunate.

As I’ve explained in detail before in an earlier blog – it’s just too dangerous there and the Arctic is too sensitive. A disaster like the one unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico could be even more devastating and harder to clean up in the Arctic. That’s because: 1) we already know Shell (who owns existing leases) doesn’t have the ability to clean up a spill, 2) blowouts are too common and just as likely to occur in shallow water as deepwater (a recent MMS report found that 19 of 39 recent blowouts were in shallow water), 3) the Arctic is too remote for a sufficient cleanup response (there’s no road system, no ports and the nearest cache of booms and other supplies is in Los Angeles), 4) a relief well – like the one in the Gulf – could take THREE YEARS to drill in the Arctic due to harsh weather and wind conditions according to Canadian regulators, and 5) Shell’s backup plan in the event of a spill relies on a containment dome – you know, like the one that failed in the Gulf.

In NRDC’s strong view, there are a handful of steps they must take in order to produce a responsible five year plan when it comes to the Arctic. That includes:

  • Not issuing any new leases for at least seven years to allow for science and oil-spill response methods to catch up with the technology of drilling
  • Cancelling the existing Chukchi lease sales
  • Stopping other harmful oil and gas activities, such as seismic work, to protect marine mammals like the endangered bowhead whale, which Alaskan Eskimos rely on as a principle subsistence food
  • Not issuing drilling permits on existing leases in the Beaufort Sea, including BP’s Liberty project, which would use extended reach drilling technology to drill from Alaska State waters to federal waters. (Some have speculated that this technology may be susceptible to natural gas bubbles like what caused the demise of the Deepwater Horizon rig.)

I will be watching carefully in the coming days what Secretary Salazar decides and what actions the Interior Department takes. The administration must take lessons learned from Gulf and not make potentially catastrophic decisions when it comes to drilling in the Arctic.

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