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Drilling in Russian Arctic Threatens Entire Ecosystem

Environmentalist author Chellis Glendinning’s 2002 work of nonfiction, Off the Map, is an indictment of maps and cartography. Glendinning asserts that maps have historically served as tools of conquest that define the territory which is to be exploited.

With that in mind, Exxon’s announcement on Monday that the company inked a deal to drill for oil in Russia’s Arctic waters should be of concern to every American and indeed every human on Earth. See, the thing is, Russia’s Arctic waters don’t stay put within the imaginary lines drawn on a map. So if there is an oil spill as a result of Exxon’s activities, the oil that leaks from the ocean floor will cross all sorts of these imaginary boundaries and threaten the overall health of the Arctic ecosystem.

The $3.2-billion deal between Exxon and Russia’s state-run Rosneft in turn gives the Russian company access to drill oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico and in Texas. A deal was in the works earlier this year between Rosneft and BP for the Arctic contract, but it fell through, opening the door for Exxon.

"It's interesting that Exxon has agreed to give Rosneft a share in Gulf oil production, including on-land production in Texas," says Buck Parker, strategic adviser and former president of Earthjustice. "So as a result of this deal, a Russian oil company will own oil rights in Texas. It kind of exposes the whole idea that developing the Arctic is about energy independence. In fact, everything about oil is international and there is no guarantee that oil drilled in one country will be used in that country and it may very well be sold abroad."

Exxon’s announcement comes on the heels of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement’s (BOEMRE) approval of Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill for oil next summer in the Alaskan Arctic’s Beaufort Sea. Since BOEMRE’s Aug. 5 decision to green-light Shell’s drilling plan, Earthjustice attorneys have been analyzing the agency’s decision and working with the Department of the Interior to persuade it to make more responsible decisions concerning permits Shell needs before it can drill in 2012, including a realistic plan to respond to an oil spill.

It’s well-established that cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic’s dark, foreboding waters would be no less difficult than getting a polar bear to pilot a bush plane in the fog. Funny thing is, that’s actually a pretty apropos description of Shell’s oil response plan.

Shell claims that it will be able to clean up 95 percent of an oil spill with booms and skimmers if one were to occur in the Arctic. Never mind that only 8 percent of the oil after the Exxon Valdez spill and only 3 percent of the oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill was captured and removed from the ocean using skimmers and booms.

"I have been working with the Arctic Council, which has committed itself to writing international standards for preparedness and response for oil spills in the Arctic," Parker explains. "And the oil companies are racing ahead even before that work can be done. So is this drilling going to start before standards can be established? If so, then the standards will always be playing catch up." 

The truth is that an oil spill in the Arctic, whether in Alaskan or Russian waters, would be catastrophic for the region's environment and its communities. It doesn't matter if it's Exxon or Shell or BP; the result of a spill would be the same. That's why Earthjustice has made promoting a clean energy future one of our primary endeavors. Only when the global economy shifts from fossil fuel-based technologies to renewable, green energy technologies will the threat of destruction via oil drilling in the Arctic (or the Gulf of Mexico or any other location with oil underground) cease.

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