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Oil spill on ice not worth the risk

Photo shows the coastal plain within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Image Library. REUTERS/HANDOUT/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


May 14, 2010 11:44 EDT

– Dennis Takahashi-Kelso is executive vice president of Ocean Conservancy and was Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill. Jim Ayers is vice president and senior adviser at Oceana and was executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. Any views expressed here are their own. –

As we are seeing each day, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform blowout in America’s Gulf coast is a human and environmental tragedy.

The oil platform was drilling an exploratory well for British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico when there was a blowout, resulting in the loss of 11 workers’ lives and uncontrolled releases of fuel and crude oil.

The tragic results occurred despite some of the best technology and spill response capabilities in the world, including 32 spill-response vessels and skimming capacity of more than 171,000 barrels per day, among many other advances and planning systems.

In a few short months, Royal Dutch Shell is set to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic—another rich and fragile region.

The Arctic acts as Earth’s air conditioner, but it is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet due to climate change.

If a spill occurs in the harsh, unpredictable Arctic environment, it could spell disaster for ecosystems and wildlife, as well as the Native peoples of the region, whose way of life depends upon healthy ocean ecosystems.

Little or no capacity exists to handle accidents and oil spills in ice-filled seas. In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard acknowledges that there is no proven  technology available today to contain and clean up an oil spill where sea ice is present.

The Minerals Management Service, the federal agency in charge of drilling leases, and Shell have tried to assure the public that there are virtually no risks from exploratory drilling in the Arctic.

In fact, in their environmental assessment necessary to win the right to drill in the Arctic, Shell stated outright that exploratory drilling in the Arctic poses “a statistically insignificant risk of a large, catastrophic oil spill (blow out)”.

Furthermore, Minerals Management Service and Shell did not even include the possibility of a major spill in their risk analyses of exploratory drilling in the Arctic.

The Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico should result in a sobering reassessment of the risks of offshore oil and gas development anywhere in the United States, but especially in the Arctic.

The Arctic is one of the least-understood regions of the planet, making it difficult to predict the consequences of increasing industrial activity and the inevitable unintended consequences, such as oil spills.

We simply do not have a thorough understanding of the potential risks, nor do we have the proper capacity and technology to ensure that these operations are safe.

As events in the Gulf clearly demonstrate, the decision to allow Shell to move forward with exploratory drilling is premature and should be reversed. At the very least, Shell should voluntarily suspend exploratory drilling. If Shell is unwilling to do so, Minerals Management Service must halt the plans.

Nearly a generation after the Exxon Valdez spill, our addiction to oil still threatens our coastal communities, marine wildlife, economy, and the ocean—the life support system of our planet.

Let’s heed the lessons of the Gulf of Mexico accident. We need a time out on expansion of oil drilling in the Arctic. A precedent has already been set.

Last August the National Marine Fisheries Service closed U.S. Arctic waters to expansion of commercial fishing above 60 degrees North Latitude because we do not yet know how those actions will impact this ever-changing and important region. The Minerals Management Service should follow this wise course.

And President Obama must demand accountability.

BP should be held responsible for Gulf clean-up and restoration. Any failure of this magnitude demands an Independent Commission to investigate the cause, response and impacts, and to make recommendations on our ability to evaluate and address the risks of offshore drilling.

Until the work of the Commission is complete there must be no new drilling; exploratory efforts in other regions should be put on hold; and there must be no Congressional action to open new areas to drilling.


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