(Trip Van Noppen is President of Earthjustice)
Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling plans are premised on a growing legacy of broken promises regarding the company’s ability to protect the fragile Arctic from drilling impacts. And, as in the past, Shell is again asking the federal government to be lenient, accept more empty promises, and let the drilling begin.
This isn’t surprising. It’s a trend we’ve experienced during the last five years of successful legal and public advocacy efforts aimed at keeping Shell out of the Arctic until it proves that it can drill without grievously wounding this magnificent ecosystem.
The latest Shell failure happened a few days ago when Shell announced that one of its two main drilling ships – already in Alaska – couldn’t meet the standards in its air permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, Shell also is reneging on its commitments to meet Coast Guard standards for its oil spill containment barge. Shell expects the EPA and the Coast Guard to ignore the problems, so Shell can drill this summer.
No matter what the EPA and the Coast Guard decide, Shell hasn’t convinced us it is ready to drill safely in the Arctic Ocean.
Despite many years of promises and assurances, the oil industry remains woefully unprepared to adequately respond to a major oil spill caused by exploration drilling. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away. The infrastructure to clean up an oil spill doesn’t exist. And government scientists admit that we have much to learn about the basic ecology of the region as well as the impacts that oil drilling will have on the Arctic environment.
So far, these concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears in the Obama administration, which seems content to rely on the hope that no spills occur on its watch. The administration appears to be on track to allow some exploration drilling to proceed this year, despite Shell’s broken promises.
So until the Obama administration enforces our laws and protects the Arctic, we turn to the courts.
Our work dates back to the early 1970s when Congress was pushing through legislation enabling construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Two decades ago, Earthjustice helped keep oil drillers out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an effort that has succeeded to this day. And when the Bush/Cheney administration turned its sights on developing oil in the environmentally sensitive and wildlife-rich area known as the National Petroleum Reserve, Earthjustice succeeded in getting key habitat like Teshekpuk Lake put off limits.
And for many years, Earthjustice and our allies also have kept the oil industry from drilling in the Arctic’s fragile offshore waters. We are in court right now, challenging air quality permits issued to Shell and many of the oil leases the government has issued in the Arctic Ocean. Last week, we continued this decades-long fight by challenging Shell’s inadequate oil spill preparedness plan for the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Despite the lessons that the Obama administration and oil industry claim to have learned from the Gulf oil spill—a mere two years ago—the government has failed to ensure that the oil company is prepared to confront the harsh realities of cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic.
Since 2000, there have been zero tests of spill response equipment in U.S. Arctic waters. And the tests that were completed before 2000 were deemed a “failure.” Today, Shell relies on much of that same equipment to remove oil from the water, but bases its plans for nearshore and coastline cleanup on the assumption that it will recover more than 90 percent of any spilled oil. Even in relatively favorable conditions, less than 10 percent of spilled oil was recovered using booms and skimmers after the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills. In the Arctic, sea ice, harsh weather, high seas, darkness and wind may render even that level of cleanup impossible.
Ultimately, our focus needs to be broader than one company as nations, including ours, prepare to extract the Arctic’s energy resources. In fact, other companies have already submitted their own plans to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean. Longer term, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has made clear that the Obama administration plans to lease more of the Arctic Ocean to oil companies.
So, even if government watchdogs ignore Shell’s pattern of broken promises and allow it to move forward on Arctic drilling, the battlelines are being drawn for an even larger fight over one of the world’s last wild places.
**Learn more about how record-breaking ice melt in the Arctic is affecting low-lying communities like the Palmyra Atoll in May’s Down to Earth podcast: On Thin Ice.