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A family of polar bears on the Beaufort Sea, where Shell plans to drill for oil and gas. One of the remaining obstacles for the oil company is the plan’s potential effect on polar bears in the region. (Reuters)

August 10, 2011

Shell Oil’s proposal to drill three exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s North Slope received a conditional go-ahead last week from the Obama administration even though the Interior Department has not yet approved the company’s plan for responding to a catastrophic oil spill. That plan fails to adequately address many of the harsh realities of drilling in Arctic seas. It’s too early for any approval, conditional or otherwise.

Exploratory offshore drilling in the Arctic doesn’t present the same potential for danger as, say, BP‘s offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The hazards of drilling in the Arctic are quite different and in ways worse.

Shell’s wells would be just 160 feet underwater, as opposed to the 5,000-foot depth of BP’s Deepwater Horizon well, source of the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. That, at least theoretically, would make the Arctic wells easier to cap. But there are other important differences. BP’s rig was located in generally calm waters that happen to contain oil-degrading bacteria. The gulf’s concentration of oil rigs also makes it a hub for Coast Guard rescue equipment and drilling expertise.

Shell’s response plan contends that it can clean up 95% of spilled oil, an unprecedented percentage even in much less hostile environments. But the skimmers and booms that are usually employed to clean up spills don’t work effectively in waters with large amounts of floating ice. Nor is there any guarantee that Shell would be able to get disaster equipment to the wells. Canada’s National Energy Board recently reported that on one day out of five, conditions in the Arctic, including the Beaufort Sea, are too harsh to send out spill-response teams. Meanwhile, the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away, and the agency told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that it cannot be counted on to respond to spills off the North Slope.

Shell’s proposal must clear other hurdles before any drilling can take place. For example, the company must show other federal agencies that its activities would not harm polar bears or marine life. But the application shouldn’t have reached this point without a response plan that is realistic about the environmental dangers of seeking an energy future in the Arctic seas.

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