Arctic Drilling For ‘Extreme Oil’ Is Risky; Letting Shell Do The Work Is Reckless

Bowhead whale swimming in the Chukchi Sea

(This article originally appeared in The Guardian.)

America’s Arctic Ocean belongs to all of us. The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas provide habitat for countless species of wildlife. This is one of the most unique marine ecosystems in the world, home to the entire population of US polar bears. Many of America’s most beloved marine creatures thrive here, including whales, walrus, seals and countless birds.

Yet on Monday, the Interior Department decided to conditionally approve Shell’s risky and dangerous plans to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea.

The Arctic is under the dual threat of climate change and development. This administration has made a strong commitment to working towards mitigating climate change. Drilling in the Arctic is backtracking on this commitment. Burning the Arctic Ocean’s oil could release an additional 15.8 bn tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to all US transportation emissions over a nine year period. Scientists have warned that we need to keep these reserves in the ground to keep global warming in check.

We know this “extreme oil” can’t be burned if we’re to leave our kids a climate safe world. And because it’s the worst possible place to drill, the sensitive, ecologically rich, and unforgiving Arctic Ocean is an ideal place to draw the line against Big Oil’s bid to continue plundering our natural heritage and wrecking our climate.

The risk of a spill is significant. By the Interior Department’s own analysis, they have found that there is a 75% chance of a major oil spill if development moves forward in the Chukchi Sea. If oil is spilled, it will be a disaster. As we’ve seen from the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez environmental disasters, there is no such thing as an effective clean up: once oil has been spilled, the battle has been lost.

In contrast, the Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, pervasive sea ice, frigid temperatures and months-long darkness. There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in these extreme conditions. What’s more, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure (there are no roads or deep water ports and only a handful of small airports) and the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away.

And, the biggest risk of all is trusting Shell in our ocean. As we all remember, Shell’s mishaps in 2012 culminated with the Kulluk, its drilling rig, running aground near Sitkalidak Island, Alaska. And, just last week, Vice reported that in April the Coast Guard held the Noble Discoverer in Honolulu for a day until engineers could repair the device that separates oil from the water in the ship’s bilges. This is the same ship whose operators pled guilty to eight felonies after Shell’s last failed season in the Arctic. You might also remember that the Noble Discoverer had 16 safety and environmental violations and slipped an anchor, nearly running aground, and caught fire at one point.

Events such as these demonstrated to the nation that drilling in the Arctic is reckless and irresponsible and that no oil company should develop there. The risks are far too great.

In 2013, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised to hold Shell’s “feet to the fire” and to not allow the company to drill in the Arctic Ocean again until it proved it could handle conditions. Yet, with the Interior Department greenlighting of Shell’s 2015 exploration plans – it doesn’t feel like Shell is being forced to meet the high standards that are needed for the situation.

The Obama administration has a responsibility to our planet; they should demonstrate real leadership and say no to Shell’s reckless and dirty plans. As the old saying goes, fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.