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Misguided Decision on Behalf of Shell Oil Company Puts Arctic Ocean at Grave Risk

Frances Beinecke

Posted August 5, 2011

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Less than one year after the largest oil spill in American history was contained, the federal government has granted preliminary approval of Shell Oil’s plan for drilling in the harsh and remote conditions of the Arctic Ocean. 

This move disregards the recommendations of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling to close the research and response gaps that exist in the Arctic before deciding whether drilling can safely proceed.

It also ignores the scientific consensus that drilling in the Arctic presents significant risk to the region’s communities, economy, and marine life.anim1868

Credit: Collection of Dr. Pablo Clemente-Colon, NOAA National Ice Center

It took five months to kill BP’s ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, even though it occurred in a well charted body of water near a heavily populated coastline, in a warm climate, and close to thousands of available cleanup vessels.

The Arctic has none of those features. The region is dominated by extreme cold, dense fog, and long periods of darkness. Much of the year it is covered by ice, which could trap oil in the ice and water for months a time. Each one of those elements would make a spill response effort more challenging, but they are compounded by remoteness.

The area around the Beaufort Sea where Shell plans to drill has few roads, shipping ports, or airports. The Coast Guard oversees spill response, yet the closest Coast Guard base to the leasing sites is 1,000 miles away. Two of the Coast Guards polar icebreaking vessels are not even operational, leaving them with only one. Bringing rescue crews and clean up equipment to the Arctic environment would be a staggering challenge. And even if we could get them there, we still do not know how to clean up oil in broken ice.

Nor do we know what a spill would do to the Arctic marine environment. Very little research has been done yet in these waters; we have only a narrow body of research focusing on just a few species. Until we have more information in hand, federal agencies cannot make a sound judgment about when and where drilling in the Arctic Ocean is safe.

The Arctic is the last wild ocean on Earth. Instead of plunging ahead using the same old practices, we should apply lessons learned from other waters, including the Gulf of Mexico.

I served on the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, and during my tenure, I heard federal officials testify that they lacked the money, staff, and expertise to ensure offshore oil rigs were following the rules. And I heard oil executives admit that the industry lacked a rigorous safety culture and best practices for operating in the offshore environment.

Government agencies have since made some reforms, but they still have more work to do. The same is true for the oil industry as well. Meanwhile, Congress has not passed a single law to strengthen environmental and worker safety standards in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

By allowing drilling into the Arctic Ocean before the government and the industry have addressed the failures that led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is taking a dangerous gamble. Residents, fishermen, business owners and all the people who love the Gulf of Mexico can tell us who pays the price for such recklessness. 

This stretch of sea belongs to the American people—not to the government and not to the oil industry—and it should be managed with greater respect for its marine riches and coastal communities.




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DaleAug 5 2011 02:17 PM

This preliminary approval is absolutely asinine. Having worked years in the oil spill cleanup arena, I can guarantee that there is no known methodology for oil spill cleanup that will work in Arctic Ocean conditions. Any spill that occurs in the Arctic Ocean will wreak environmental devastaton for lifetimes to come. And for Shell Oil to be given this preliminary approval is even more asinine. Are the regulators who approved this even remotely aware of the environmental and human devastation that Shell Oil has wreaked in Nigeria in the last 50 years and which will take generations and al least $1 billion to remediate? This scenario is beginning to sound a whole lot like the regulatores "being in bed with" the regulated community, or the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is woefully understaffed and unable to fully assess the proposal and its potential ramifications.

OliviaAug 5 2011 02:48 PM

All I want to know at this point is, WHAT, IF ANYTHING, CAN WE DO TO HELP?! I want to assume that since this is a "preliminary approval", there is still time to act and possibly make some sort of difference?! Please tell us if there's anything we can do as individuals to stop this. To say that this breaks my heart is an understatement. This freaking slays me.

Frances BeineckeAug 5 2011 05:16 PM

Olivia, I understand your frustration and I appreciate your desire to take action. I encourage you to contact Secretary of the Interior Salazar and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Bromwich to tell them what you think about the decision to allow Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

Unfortunately, there is no public comment period for applications to drill, but I encourage you to raise your voice to these officials and to your lawmakers.

We need to let our officials know Americans want our ocean resources safeguarded from undue risk and harm. NRDC and our supporters submitted nearly 60,000 comments on the recent Chukchi Lease Sale proposal currently under consideration. You can help generate a similar response to the misguided Shell decision.

Daniel CorbinAug 6 2011 02:21 PM

You can't fix stupid!

Juergen BodenAug 15 2011 06:26 AM

I trust that meanwhile NRDC is aware of the most recent spill in Shell's drilling operations off the coast of Scotland - in which Shell doesn't agree to disclose details of the spill. This is a good example of why there are more reasons not to allow Shell to drill in the Beaufort- and Chukchi Seas.

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