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A Necessary Condition for Arctic Drilling


A version of this editorial appeared in print on August 9, 2011, on page A22 of the New York edition

The Obama administration’s decision on Thursday to give “conditional approval” to Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to begin drilling four shallow-water wells in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska alarmed many environmentalists. Cleaning up an oil spill in the frigid, turbulent waters of the Arctic Ocean is likely to be far more complicated than it was in the comparatively benign waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

We have misgivings about this plan for just that reason. But President Obama, who indicated last year that he would honor Shell’s leases if it passed various environmental reviews, seems determined to proceed. The administration should require that Shell meet basic safeguards before it receives final permits to begin punching holes in the ocean floor.

The most important safeguard, spelled out in an Aug. 4 letter from the Department of the Interior, is that Shell demonstrate the capacity to quickly contain a blowout — not with skimmers, relief wells or other surface equipment, all of which Shell promises — at the source. Perhaps the most shocking discovery in the gulf disaster is that nobody, federal regulators included, knew how to contain the leak once the blowout preventer failed. The result was a devastating 86-day gusher.

It will presumably be easier to plug a leak at 160 feet — the average depth of Shell’s projected wells — than it was at 5,000 feet. But any well drilled below the ocean surface will generate great pressure, with the risk of a blowout. Shell’s celebratory press release Thursday said it “remains committed to fabricating an oil spill capping system.” That’s much too vague. Ken Salazar, who as the interior secretary is responsible for giving the final go-ahead, must insist on a functioning capping system.

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