Despite obvious differences, the icy Arctic Ocean and the warm, deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico have an important commonality: we aren’t prepared to safely drill for oil in either place. Last year’s Gulf spill – which killed 11 rig workers and fouled waters that nourish ecosystems and economies alike – is a harsh illustration of that simple fact.
And yet, the Gulf spill’s oily sheen has been a Rorschach test for the nation, eliciting support for and opposition to high-risk offshore drilling. Thankfully, the critical need to slow down and assess our preparedness to drill safely in deepwater and sensitive areas like the Arctic was underscored last week by the findings of President Obama’s Oil Spill Commission.
The commission was clear: the Gulf spill was a preventable disaster caused by mistakes made while drilling in high-risk conditions for which neither industry nor government were prepared. And the industry is still not prepared, the commission emphasized. There are huge gaps in our understanding of how to drill in deepwater and sensitive areas like the Arctic without endangering human safety and environmental protection.
Considered against the comparatively calm and temperate waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic is as inhospitable a location for oil drilling as exists practically anywhere. Indeed, the Arctic Ocean epitomizes the difficult environments to which industry is increasingly turning to tap the world’s diminishing oil reserves. It shouldn’t take a spill in Arctic waters for our society to wise up.
Imagine 20-foot seas, the prevalence of ice for much of the year, frigid temperatures, and a lack of infrastructure. These significant challenges make it nearly inconceivable that an oil spill of any size could be adequately dealt with under such conditions.
And let’s not forget that there are lives at stake. Arctic waters teem with life, from bowhead whales and polar bears to walrus, seals, sea birds and many other species. These remarkable creatures thrive amid tough conditions, and yet the condition they likely could not survive involves spilled oil in icy waters.
Earthjustice maintains that the risks associated with Arctic drilling are too great. For years, we have been working to prevent exploratory drilling by Shell and other companies in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which are both home to a rich tapestry of life – human and animal – that would suffer tremendously if a tragedy similar to the Gulf spill befell the region.
The president’s commission recognizes the threats and has assembled a regulatory prescription that the Department of Interior should follow to prevent another tragedy. The commission’s recommendations suggest that until and unless the many gaps associated with offshore oil development are addressed, drilling in high-risk areas such as the Arctic simply cannot proceed.
An ideal starting place for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) – the division of Interior that is tasked with environmental review of offshore drilling projects – is the incorporation of the government’s own experts, including ocean researchers, into the review process. One of the major gaps in understanding Arctic drilling is scientific, and these ecosystem scientists are precisely the individuals who should be informing the environmental review to bridge those gaps.
Tellingly, the OSC report states, “To be allowed to drill on the outer continental shelf is a privilege to be earned, not a private right to be exercised.” No longer can drilling permits be handed out indiscriminately like leaflets at a rally. The OSC report recommends a revised process in which the Department of Interior and the White House work in tandem to increase the quality of environmental review, transparency and consistency at all levels of the permitting process. Earthjustice strongly supports this critical change to the old, broken system of permitting for offshore drilling.
The Gulf spill reminds us that there is much to lose if we rush headlong into drilling without a clear understanding of how to address a disaster. The decision to drill in the Arctic should be a carefully considered one, informed by science and dialogue. The findings of the Oil Spill Commission cannot undo the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico and all who depend on it, but if the recommendations made are followed in earnest, we will be a long way towards ensuring that such a tragedy doesn’t happen again.
The real challenge ahead of us lies in reducing our use of oil in order to escape the unceasing pressure to drill. Ultimately, the safest way to drill places like the Arctic is not to drill them at all.