Oil Spill Commission Report: We Need to Do More Research Before Drilling in Arctic Ocean

On Tuesday, the National Oil Spill Commission released our final report on what caused the BP oil disaster. Most of our six-month investigation focused on the Gulf of Mexico, but we also looked at other offshore drilling environments, including the Arctic Ocean.

We concluded that the government cannot make thoughtful decisions about the future of drilling in the Arctic Ocean until we close two critical gaps: the gap in our scientific understanding of the Arctic ecosystem and the gap in our ability to respond to spills in that forbidding landscape.

Only when we close these gaps can we begin to determine if offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean could be safe and prudent.

Back in the summer, Americans were shocked to see how difficult it was to contain the oil spill in the Gulf. Even though the blowout took place in a well-charted body of water, near a heavily developed coastline, and close to thousands of available clean up vessels, it still took three months to cap the well and another two months to kill it. Coastal communities and marine life are still reeling from the damage nine months later.

Now imagine if a similar spill occurred in the Arctic Ocean.

Conditions there are dominated by extreme cold, long periods of darkness, hurricane-force storms, and dense fog. It is also covered by ice much of the year. Each one of those elements would make a spill response effort more challenging -- the ice alone could trap oil in the water for months at a time -- but they are all compounded by remoteness.

The coastal plain off the Chukchi Sea has virtually no roads, no shipping ports, and few airports. The Coast Guard is required by law to oversee spill response, and yet the closest Coast Guard base to the leasing sites in the Chukchi Sea is 1,000 miles away. Two of the Coast Guards polar icebreaking vessels are not even operational. Bringing enough rescue crews and clean-up equipment to the Arctic environment would be a staggering challenge.

We don’t even know what a spill would do to the Arctic marine environment, because there is so much we don’t know about the ecosystem in general. Conducting research there is costly and difficult—and further limited by the short ice-free season. The body of current research is very narrow, focusing on just a few species at only certain times of the year. We need to have more benchmark information about the ecosystem before we can assess how an oil spill would damage it. 

The commission’s report recommends ways to close the response and the research gaps, including launching an immediate federal research effort to gather more scientific data about the Arctic Ocean, conducting annual stock assessments of species, and creating an interagency research program to focus on spill response and containment in the Arctic. We also recommend that the United States take the lead in establishing strong international standards for oil and gas developing in the Arctic—since the damages from an oil spill in one part of the region could impact another nation’s waters.

Until we have more information in hand, the Department of Interior cannot make a sound judgment about whether to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

In the commission’s report, we write that the spill in the Gulf Mexico “undermined public faith in the oil and gas industry, in government regulators, and even in America’s ability to respond to crises.” Hopefully in the next few years, we can restore that faith, but we must not squander it by taking undue risks in the far more complex and remote Arctic Ocean.