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Six Reasons Why Offshore Drilling in the Arctic Cannot Be Done Safely

Frances Beinecke

Posted June 10, 2013

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The Coast Guard recently wrapped up a hearing about the Shell drill rig that ran aground in December. The rig and its tow vessel were part of Shell’s reckless attempt to drill for oil in the wild and remote Arctic Ocean. Witnesses described the uncertified equipment that broke off the tow, the anchor dropped at the wrong time that could have caused a deadly crash, and the “jelly-like stuff” that killed all four engines because crew members forgot to treat the fuel lines. But when investigators asked why the rig was traveling through notoriously rough waters in the stormiest time of year, the answer had nothing to do with technical or human error: the company wanted to avoid paying taxes in Alaska.

Shell’s entire Arctic Ocean program has been riddled with failure and carelessness. The details from last week’s hearing simply confirmed it. But testimony about forty-foot swells, treacherous waters, and perilous helicopter rescues also revealed another important truth: no company is a match for this forbidding place.

Even the best-prepared, best-equipped, and most technologically advanced oil company has no business drilling for oil in the Arctic. It is simply not possible to do it safely here.

The Arctic is a crown jewel in America’s national heritage, home to wondrous wildlife and breathtaking landscapes. But it is also a rugged and forbidding environment. The ocean is covered in ice much of the year, shrouded in fog and darkness, and located 1,000 miles away from the nearest Coast Guard base. No matter how well prepared an oil company claims to be, no one can master these punishing conditions.

And if they try and fail, the result would be disastrous. There is no proven technology or emergency response plan that can contain an oil spill in the Arctic. For these reasons, the Obama Administration must call a halt to offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

1. The oil industry has a long history of spills on the North Slope. There has been a spill of oil or associated chemicals on the average of once a day since oil and gas development began on the North Slope. Many of the accidents involved pipelines, and development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas would require a network of pipelines stretching up to 75 miles to shore. To make matters worse, ocean currents and winds can move oil and chemicals hundreds of miles in unpredictable ways.

2. Studies confirm the absence of a reliable cleanup method for the Arctic. A study commissioned by Canada’s National Energy Board looked at 20 years of Beaufort Sea data and concluded that bad weather and sea ice would make it impossible to use the three most widely used oil spill containment methods—burning spilled oil in-situ, using booms and skimmers, and aerial application of dispersants—up to 84 percent of the time during the June-to-November drilling season. Spills that occurred late in the season would remain until the following year because the oil would get trapped under the ice. Cold water breaks down oil much more slowly than warm water does, which means a spill could linger for years.

3. Almost no infrastructure exists to support emergency response. There is no backup in the American Arctic when systems fail. The nearest cache of clean-up equipment is 2,000 miles away in Seattle. There are few shipping ports or landing strips near the lease sites, and bringing rescue crews and equipment to the Arctic would be a staggering challenge. Recall that the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster occurred near the epicenter of the American oil industry—with access to thousands of commercial, industrial, and Coast Guard vessels and robust airline support—and it still took five months to seal the well.

4. The Arctic Coast is teeming with extraordinary wildlife. The Chukchi Sea features a vast, shallow floor, and its seasonal ice cover helps polar bears, walrus, and seals to hunt.  To the east, the Beaufort’s coastline is the number-one land denning site in America’s Arctic for female polar bears. Endangered bowhead whales migrate through the area in the spring and, more significantly, in the fall when drilling would occur. Introducing massive industrial activity into this region would put many of these animals in peril. The oil exploration process alone requires powerful air guns that could injure or kill whales that rely on sound to find food and mate. An oil spill in the midst of these creatures would be devastating.

5. Damage to wildlife will undermine indigenous cultures. The Inupiat and other Alaska Native communities depend upon clean, vibrant oceans. Bowhead whales, for instance, provide both the primary subsistence food and cultural identity for the Inupiat who live along the Beaufort Sea. Many villagers worry that offshore drilling will endanger these traditions with its sonar blasts, increased ship traffic, and threat of spills.

6. Drilling for Oil in the Arctic Will Invite More Climate Disruption Rising temperatures are heating the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This shift has grave consequences for all of us. The Arctic is the air conditioner for the world—as it warms, it modifies the jet stream and influences weather patterns over North America, Europe, and Russia and intensify extreme weather events in our communities. If we are going to prevent more climate destruction, America must reduce the amount of carbon we pump into the air. Investing in clean energy will move us forward, but drilling for Arctic oil will take us in the wrong direction. And all the carbon released when Arctic oil was burned would make this unique and beautiful region even more compromised by climate change.  This must be the place we decide as a nation: no drilling here. It’s not safe for the Arctic, and it’s not smart for the climate.

Even oil companies are starting to recognize that drilling here makes no sense. ConocoPhilips, Norway’s Statoil, and Total SA have all postponed or cancelled their plans to drill in America’s Arctic. Now it’s time for the Obama Administration to stop going literally to the ends of the Earth for dirty fossil fuels that undercut progress controlling climate change, and cost us global leadership on the most important environmental issue of our age. It’s time for President Obama to end offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Click here to send this message to the administration now. 

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Randi VerretJun 10 2013 07:09 PM

Stop killing our beautiful planet!

Alon PerlmanJun 11 2013 05:39 PM

Albido, #6. There is no way that human activities are not going to have an affect such as darkening the snow pack.

Patrice St-PiereJun 13 2013 11:06 AM

Operation in the arctic requires well though process.

I remember the year of operation of Dome Petroleum; Technically the company had a lot of success. The investor over extended the company finances and everything closes.

the underwarter birm with the SSDC was success as well as Mackenly island to protect he fleet over the winter.

A new drydock was available to repair ships
and the planning was better than it is today.

There were lessons learn such as caisson project, protection of the fleet, clean fuel and many of my friends at the time can share these stories.

Doom and gloom a the statement above are mostly for those who can't do.

I remember statement that no Canadians we able to operate dredges and I done it for 5 years; I remember statements that vessels were poorly build and today 35yrs later the are still operating such as the Kigoriak, suppliers 1, 2 3, and 4, the Terry fox, Kalvik working in Russia ect...

In Canada, the Arctic was not developed due to project start and stop because of lack o political will and lack of seat at the federal level.

I certainly hope that the Canadians will find the way to develop a northern sea way and pipeline to big their resources to Asian market.

So far the development of the Arctic and its resources were mainly low down by poor data and political agenda, and environmental whims.

Canadians, Please wake up

Larry HamiltonJun 16 2013 12:50 AM

The author makes many valid arguments about the problems associated with drilling in the Arctic OCEAN. However, she loses a little credibility with me when I see statements like "There has been a spill of oil or associated chemicals on the average of once a day since oil and gas development began on the North Slope." While not a long time veteran of North Slope work, I have spent occasional time there, along with work in biotech, oil, refineries and power in the contiguous 48 states.

First, let's not confuse land drilling in the Arctic, which in the US is the vast majority of Arctic exploration and production with ocean drilling in the Arctic.

Second,the operators are aggressive in prevention, clean up and recording of each drop that comes from a vehicle or piece of equipment. The VAST majority of those spills are a few drops (hydraulic oil, radiator fluid, dripping from a pickup truck) that land on the operator's own pad and the spill is immediately reported and cleaned up before even those few drops enter the environment. The native villages have environmental observers and advisors to continuously reinforce the importance of good environmental stewardship and monitor the performance of the oil companies. It is because of that meticulous recording and reporting that you can say that there are many spills. The average person may not have even noticed or even considered them spills without awareness training as they are so small. Each person who operates a vehicle is supposed to check for leaks each and every time that they start their vehicle.

There certainly have been a few pipeline spills, and those should not have happened. No disagreement there.

It's OK to have a good discussion, and people should argue their points passionately. Good debate leads to better decisions. But let's not intentionally mislead to prove a point.

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