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Getting Arctic Drilling Right

A version of this editorial appeared in print on February 26, 2012, on page SR10 of the New York edition

Oil drilling off the North Slope of Alaska now seems virtually a sure thing. This month, the Interior Department gave tentative approval to Shell’s plans for responding to a potential spill in the Chukchi Sea, an important step toward approval of the company’s plan to drill six wells in the Chukchi’s frigid and forbidding waters. The company still needs a permit, and before the administration grants one it must be absolutely sure that Shell can meet the safety conditions stipulated in the approval.

The costs of a mistake could be very high. Many environmentalists have argued against any drilling in Arctic waters, given their value to wildlife — and given weather conditions that would make cleaning up a spill especially difficult. We believe this particular project is worth the effort, but only if done right. Estimates of recoverable reserves in the Chukchi and nearby Beaufort Seas range as high as 30 billion barrels of oil, about four years’ worth of consumption in the United States.

Shell must meet two main conditions. The first is to complete and test a well-capping system that can quickly contain a blowout in a harsh and unfamiliar environment. Among the most searing memories left by the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was the complete helplessness of industry and government officials as a runaway well spilled nearly 5 million barrels, or 206 million gallons, before it was finally capped.

The other condition is that Shell, along with the Coast Guard and other agencies, conduct extensive spill response drills — in the open ocean, not “tabletop” exercises — to test the booms, skimmers, support vessels and all the other moving parts necessary to collect whatever oil escapes before a blowout is plugged. The Interior Department’s announcement said Shell had “committed to provide” the capping stack and an oil collection system. But it should insist on multiple tests involving government and outside observers before allowing exploration to proceed.

Shell’s proposals are a big improvement over earlier plans, in part because the Interior Department has applied many of the lessons learned in the gulf — insisting, for instance, on a redesigned blowout preventer capable of closing a well within seconds. The plan also shortens the summer drilling season to around two months. The company must stop before sea ice begins to form, ensuring it has time to fix a blowout while operating in open water.

President George W. Bush recklessly proposed opening just about all of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to drilling. The Obama administration canceled that plan in favor of what it says will be a more modest and scientifically rigorous proposal, due in midsummer. Environmentalists are urging the government to put particularly sensitive areas off-limits entirely, and we agree. The most important thing right now is to get off to a credible start by making the Shell project as mistake-proof as possible.


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