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Proceed with caution in Alaska

January 03, 2012

After what happened last year when BP’s oil well blew out and dumped millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, the idea of drilling for oil in the frigid Arctic Ocean off northern Alaska sounds risky.

Even in the relatively placid and temperate Gulf, it took 86 days to cap BP’s damaged well, and by then raw crude had spread for hundreds of miles. Further, the frigid arctic waters aren’t as rich in the oil-eating bugs that limited damage in the Gulf. The Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where Royal Dutch Shell wants to drill next summer, are covered with ice two-thirds of the year.

But despite those risks — and the fact that the Shell bid is shaping up as an election-year controversy — other factors say Shell should be allowed to drill. And, in fact, the Obama administration has granted the company a conditional go-ahead.

There are at least three reasons for moving ahead:

• The Arctic Ocean is much shallower than the Gulf of Mexico. Shell would drill in 160 feet of water or less, compared with the mile-deep water where BP was drilling in the Gulf. And well pressures off Alaska are just a third to a half what they are where BP drilled. If something did go horribly wrong, Shell would benefit from BP’s experience.

• Shell and other companies have drilled more than 100 wells in the Arctic waters off Alaska and Canada without serious incident, which suggests that drilling there, safely, is possible. Shell also has a better safety record than BP, and with $4 billion already invested in Arctic operations would face significant losses if it caused a serious spill.

• The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the area holds more than 20 billion barrels of oil, which would rival some of the mega-fields in the Middle East— a serious consideration for a nation that still imports almost half its oil.

In an ideal world, there’d be no need to drill in Arctic waters, just as there’d be no need to build the controversial Keystone pipeline to bring tar sands oil through the United States from Canada, or even to resume drilling in the ultra-deep Gulf of Mexico. But until most of America’s 250 million motor vehicles run on something other than gasoline, pretending that the nation doesn’t need more domestic oil is foolish.

Americans shouldn’t stand for another disaster like the one that a careless, clueless BP caused last year, but neither can their energy needs be ignored.

Give Shell the go-ahead, but keep it on a short leash.

OPPOSING VIEW: Say no to Arctic drilling


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