Are We Really Ready to Expose Our Arctic Waters to the Threat of a Major Oil Spill?

The icy waters north of Alaska are home to polar bears, walruses and whales; it's a fragile environment, and our understanding of this unique marine ecosystem is not well developed.
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Earlier this year, I asked whether we've learned enough to expand Arctic drilling based on our experiences with the Exxon-Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil disasters. My answer now is the same as it was then: a resounding "no."

The recent North Sea oil spill off the coast of Scotland reinforces my point. Shell's undersea pipeline began leaking two weeks ago, and since then, nearly 55,000 gallons of oil have been released into surrounding waters. It's a stark reminder that oil spills will happen, and companies must be prepared to respond effectively when they do.

Shell's oil spill in the North Sea underscores an important question about drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Are we really ready to expose our Arctic waters to the threat of a major oil spill? The icy waters north of Alaska are home to polar bears, walruses and whales; it's a fragile environment, and our understanding of this unique marine ecosystem is not well developed.

The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was devastating to the Gulf environment and economy - and the response efforts to that spill took months in generally favorable weather. The harsh conditions and remoteness of the Arctic present challenges that typical spill-response methods don't address.

Last week, the Washington Post ran a story on "pondering the impact" of drilling in the Chukchi Sea that expands on the important differences between the disaster in the Gulf and a potential disaster in the Arctic:

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft said recently that dispersants wouldn't work in icy water, that the Arctic doesn't have the same oil-chomping microbes the Gulf has and that the nearest Coast Guard response vessel is 1,200 miles away. Whereas thousands of workers flocked to the Gulf Coast to fight the spill there, there are only a handful of rooms at the tiny Olgoonik Hotel here.

Shell's revised Chukchi exploration plan says a "worst case spill" could reach 23,100 barrels a day, nearly half the rate of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. But a recent study in the nearby Canadian Beaufort Sea determined that the notoriously bad weather in that region "would prevent any spill response one out of five days in June, the mildest month, and two out of three days in October, the end of the open-water season."

Could this mean that a spill in October could continue leaking oil for days, weeks, months - potentially until spring, when it's safe for response efforts to continue? That would certainly be the real "worst case spill."

Two weeks ago - just days before the North Sea spill, the federal agency that regulates offshore oil and gas drilling approved Shell's plan for exploratory drilling in Alaska's Beaufort Sea in 2012. Yet another alarming signal came last week, when that agency released a final environmental analysis that that could set the stage for exploration drilling in the Chukchi Sea.

In June, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report recommending additional science to address "major constraints to a defensible science framework for critical Arctic decision making." But last week's final environmental analysis pretends that additional information just isn't necessary to make smart choices about oil and gas activities in the Arctic.

Instead of ignoring the science gaps and plowing ahead with oil and gas leases, the government should implement a comprehensive Arctic research program to promote informed decision-making and to measure and monitor impacts on the ecological resources of the Arctic. With that information in hand, we can make no-regrets choices for our Arctic seas.

We still have a chance to get it right in the Arctic, but we must fill the gaps in Arctic science before we decide on drilling.

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