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Plan for Arctic Drilling a Bad Move When No Proven Way to Stop an Arctic Spill

Frances Beinecke

Posted June 27, 2012

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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on Tuesday that his agency is poised to approve oil and gas drilling in the Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska later this summer, and sell more Arctic offshore leases later on. This is a bad decision that will take America down a dangerous path.

Arctic conditions are too harsh for safe operations, and we don’t know how to prevent a blowout or clean up an oil spill there. This is an extraordinary and miraculously wild place, a crucial nursery for whales, seal, polar bears, and birds, to name just a few. We must not trade this rich and diverse region for more oil company profits.


U.S.-Canada Fourth Joint Mission To Map the Continental Shelf in the Arctic Ocean

We saw how little this industry can do to stop a gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, in warm, clear, calmer waters and with access to a massive flotilla of commercial, industrial and Coast Guard vessels and the best offshore drilling technology in the world.

Now envision a blowout in the Arctic Ocean, a remote and harsh region of high seas, gale-force winds and sub-freezing temperatures much of the year. These drilling sites are more than 1,000 miles from the nearest U.S. Coast Guard station. The waters see ice floes in the summer, and are packed solid with ice for eight or more months each year – and no one knows how to clean up an oil spill in ice. A spill in the Arctic would make the Gulf disaster look like child's play.

Opening a new vein in our oil addiction, meanwhile, would make a mockery of science. We need to be developing carbon-free energy sources, not searching for ever more fossil fuel in ever more remote and pristine locations.

The Arctic is ground zero for climate change. The region has heated up nearly twice as much as the rest of the planet. Its glaciers are receding, and as they melt, they contribute to global sea-level rise. Last week’s cover story in the Economist cautioned: “For those minded to ignore the risks, it is worth noting that even the more extreme predictions of Arctic warming have been outpaced by what has happened in reality.”

Americans are already feeling the effects of climate change in the form of deadly heat waves, devastating floods and droughts, and illnesses brought on by polluted air.  Opening the Arctic Ocean to drilling will only aggravate these grave consequences.

We can keep our economy moving without oil from the Arctic Ocean. Fuel efficient cars, sustainable biofuels, public transit options, and other solutions can get us where we need to go without sacrificing the Arctic Ocean or climate stability. The Obama administration’s new clean car standards, for instance, will save drivers more than $80 billion a year at the pump within 20 years, while cutting our oil use by more than we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010.

But the oil industry is using its extraordinary influence to persuade leaders we need more oil and we need to despoil our last wild ocean to get it.

Oil companies are so eager to get into the Arctic that they don’t even want to wait until experts can establish what is safe or create plans for protecting the most sensitive parts of the region. Nor do they want to wait until America has acted on the lessons of the BP oil disaster. While the Obama administration has taken some steps, Congress has failed to pass one piece of legislation to make drilling safer since the Deepwater Horizon pumped approximately 170 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The only responsible course is to put the brakes on risky drilling in the Arctic Ocean, while we gather the facts we need to understand this fragile and vital region. Until and unless we have the knowledge, technology and ability to prevent all spills, or ensure that they are swiftly contained and cleaned up, any drilling in Arctic waters risks unthinkable disaster. The stakes are too high here to roll the dice and hope for the best.


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BSJun 27 2012 06:45 PM

It's tough to have a proven way to stop a spill when no spill has ever happened.

You rely on models to "prove" global warming because it involves predicting the fufture. Similarly, the only way to figure out how to address a spill that has never happened is to rely on predictions.

That's the risk we take for economic growth. If we didn't do anything until everything was "proven", we'd never do anything at all.

If you believe we should only make decisions when there are no uncertainties, then you also should throw out all the climate models which are inherently uncertain.

In the meantime, world gov'ts and oil companies will work together to identify the safest way to produce the oil safely.

James TyrerJun 28 2012 09:11 AM

You ignore the fact that we now have a way to quickly stop a blowout such as the recent one in the Gulf. Do you have any facts to suggest that this wouldn't also work in the Arctic?

Frances BeineckeJul 2 2012 03:38 PM

James, the industry actually doesn’t have a way to “quickly” stop a blowout. According to a report card issued in April by former members of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, the industry has created two consortia to help contain a blowout. But, the commissioners wrote, “It could take several weeks to deploy these systems, however, depending on how far the well is from where the devices are stored and how much work has to be done to clear the well head so they can be installed.”

If Gulf waters pose a challenge to blowout containment, the harsh conditions of the Arctic will be even more formidable. Shell recently tested a capping stack—designed to shut off the flow from a blow out—in Puget Sound, Washington. How quickly the equipment might be deployed in an emergency in the Arctic or how well it will perform in those rough and icy waters is also unknown.

Let's remember, BP also assured us it had what it needed to stop the 2010 gusher in the Gulf. Actually stemming the flow of oil, though, took three months, during which 170 million gallons of crude oil poured into the ocean.

BS, you are right that uncertainty is a part of economic growth, but when the stakes are high—as with airlines and nuclear power—some industries have learned to handle risk in a more comprehensive manner. The stakes are high in the Arctic, but the oil industry hasn’t fully embraced sound risk management. When it created its new safety institute—as the National Commission recommended—it housed it within the lobbying giant the American Petroleum Institute. To protect America’s Arctic riches, we need the oil industry to demonstrate a clear commitment to independent, research-based safety systems.

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