On January 10, the Obama administration reviewed its decision to open up Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to oil exploration following the grounding of Shell’s offshore oil rig the Kulluk. Though none of the Kulluk’s 43,000 gallons of diesel or 2,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid was spilled, this accident must act as a wake-up call for President Obama. The administration missed a vital chance to stop offshore drilling when it approved Shell’s 4.5 billion dollar Arctic effort last year. Now that the operation has been nothing but bad news, the Obama administration must put an end to this terrible idea.
There are, without a doubt, short-term economic benefits from drilling in the Arctic, yet such economic benefits are far outweighed by environmental costs. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic Ocean may hold 90 billion barrels of oil and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which could supply U.S. demand for 12 years at our current rate of consumption. This would reduce gas prices as well as spur the local economy by creating new jobs. Yet the recent mishaps on Shell’s rig have shown that the company is irresponsible and unqualified for drilling even though the US government has given them permits for drilling. This could result in an event nothing less than catastrophic for the Alaskan environment and the people who live there.
First of all, Shell must present clean-up plans that are near flawless. Even in the case of a small spill the Artic may be too sensitive and unpredictable for successful clean-up. Such a restoration would be both slow and inefficient because of constantly shifting ice packs, and its consequences could severely affect the environment and indigenous people of Alaska. Moreover, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas of Alaska are characterized by prevalent fog, storms, and extreme cold, all of which inhibit the effective cleanup of an oil spill. For example, a major part of any oil cleanup is the deployment of buoy-like devices called skimmers, which prevent the spread of oil. Arctic cold temperatures can cause the devices to freeze, reducing their effectiveness. There is little chance that a large oil spill in such conditions could be effectively cleaned up before it incurred wide-spread damage.
An oil spill would also injure native Alaskans. The Native Village of Point Hope, located near a drilling site, is afraid that drilling will disturb the migratory patterns of the endangered bowhead whale upon which they rely for a living. Although new oil jobs would put money in their pockets, these peoples also rely on the sea for their food and economy. Through drilling, an already fragile ecosystem would be thrown out of balance.
When scrutinized closely, Shell’s plan for the containment of an oil spill and its record of competently adhering to environmental standards seem to paint a bleak picture for the Arctic. It is crazy to think that the Obama administration approved Shell’s plan to drill in one of the most hostile environments on Earth even before the testing of the capping stack. Moreover, the entire operation so far has shown that Shell is not ready to drill in the Artic. The Noble Discoverer, the Kulluk’s sister ship, caught on fire in November. Shell’s oil spill containment dome then failed a required safety inspection. As if those violations weren’t enough, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that both the Kulluk and its sister ship, the Noble Discoverer, repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act in the past year.
Shell, alongside the federal government, needs to create and revise comprehensive prevention plans before any further drilling. Additionally, the federal government must work to establish an area-specific response plan and work with other Arctic nations to develop an international oil spill response. Although in the short term Arctic drilling may benefit our economy, the effects of an oil spill would last much, much longer.