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What Is It Going to Take to Stop Shell’s Arctic Drilling?

Posted 04/20/2012

I’ve got one question for President Obama: What is it going to take for you to put a stop to Shell’s plans for Arctic Ocean drilling this summer? The reasons not to drill just keep mounting — and the reasons to drill? Well, there seems to be just one, and I can’t say it in politically correct company. I can give you a hint: Republican rhetoric and the 2012 presidential election.

Just yesterday, the National Oil Spill Commission that you appointed after the Deepwater Horizon disaster came out with a report card that noted that in the Arctic, there remain “many unanswered questions and much work to be done.” Specifically, this group of esteemed experts raised concerns about the fact that there remains no proven method to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s extreme conditions.

Specifically, the report card notes that Shell has yet to successfully test the techniques they propose to use for Arctic oil spill containment “in the extreme weather conditions that are often present in Arctic waters.” What’s more, these techniques have not been “evaluated in any significant way by government entities.” The commission went on to point out that “the Coast Guard has made it clear in congressional testimony that they are not yet prepared to deal with a serious drilling incident in the Arctic.”

These words alone should give you pause. However, there’s much more.

Congress’ investigative body, the General Accountability Office (GAO), came out with its own report at the end of last month on Shell’s subsea containment capabilities. This report questions what Shell plans to do if there’s a blowout in the Arctic — similar to the one in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 men and caused 205.8 million gallons of oil to spill and months to contain. Their findings, like the National Oil Spill Commission report card, were skeptical.

“Even with Shell’s plans to have dedicated capping stack and well containment capabilities in the region to provide rapid response in the event of a blowout, these dedicated capabilities do not completely mitigate some of the environmental and logistical risks associated with the remoteness and environment of the region,” the report reads.

On the heels of that report, analysts at one of the world’s largest insurance markets issued a stunning warning that offshore drilling in the Arctic would “constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk” and urged companies to “think carefully about the consequences of action.” The Lloyds of London report cautions that “environmental consequences of disasters in the Arctic have the potential to be worse than in other regions. The resilience of the Arctic’s ecosystems in terms of withstanding risk events is weak, and political sensitivity to a disaster is high. As a result, companies operating in the Arctic face significant reputational risk.”

Even if you put aside all the warnings and skepticism from people who make it their job to know about these things, there are still the voices of those who stand to lose the most. Their words are the ones that speak to your heart.

Caroline Cannon, an Inupiat tribal leader who has spent her life in recent years going back and forth between her home on the Arctic coast and Washington, D.C. to ensure that her people and her way of life are not forgotten, was recognized this week with the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Caroline and her community of 700 people in Point Hope, Alaska, have thrived for thousands of years off the bounty of the Arctic Ocean. When Caroline comes to Washington, she gives voice to her community, others on the Arctic coast, as well as the generations that came before and the generations still to come. For all of them, Shell’s plans threaten who they are and who they will be.

I will never forget the day that the mother of nine and grandmother of 26 called me sobbing, asking me how our president could have made yet another decision to allow Shell to move forward with its plans. I didn’t know how to answer her, except to say that we will keep fighting.

“Shell’s proposed drilling would affect not simply our ability to feed ourselves and others in the community, or the cultural traditions around our subsistence activities, or just our enjoyment of those activities, but they would affect the very foundations of who we are as individuals and as a people,” Caroline said. “We have a right to life, to physical integrity, to security, and the right to enjoy the benefits of our culture. For this, we will fight.”

Surely, President Obama, you can’t turn your back on the voices of these proud Inupiats and proud Americans.

We only have one Arctic. It not only gives life to myriad beloved species of wildlife — from polar bears and bowhead whales, to ice seals and walrus — but it also acts as our planet’s air conditioner. I implore you not to play political roulette with a place that is such a vital piece of our planet’s future. There is still time to stop this disaster before it happens. Tell Shell to turn its ships around.

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