BOEMRE gives conditional OK to Beaufort Sea exploration; Shell still needs approval from EPA and other federal agencies
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A conditional federal green light for offshore drilling in the Arctic drew immediate fire from environmental groups, who claim the approval ignores the lessons of last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and risks irreversible damage to sensitive marine resources in the region.
Shell Oil must still gain approval from other federal agencies, including the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and must meet a very specific set of conditions, relating to safety, monitoring, reporting and wildlife issues before any drilling takes place. The conditions are outlined in this letter from BOEMRE to Shell.
The approval came after completion of a site-specific environmental assessment which resulted in a formal finding of no significant impact. All the documents are online at this BOEMRE website.
“We base our decisions regarding energy exploration and development in the Arctic on the best scientific information available,” said BOEMRE director Michael R. Bromwich. “We will closely review and monitor Shell’s proposed activities to ensure that any activities that take place under this plan will be conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”
Those assurances aren’t nearly good enough for a phalanx of environmental groups gearing up to challenge the drilling in what will likely be a fundamental battle over energy development and resource conservation.
“Everyone from the Coast Guard to local community leaders has said they are ill-equipped and unable to properly respond to an oil spill in the Arctic, yet now we are letting Shell move forward with drilling in severe weather conditions in America’s most pristine and unique frontier,” said Chuck Clusen, director of Alaska projects for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is either the height of irresponsibility or the height of ignorance, but either way it should be stopped.”
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Shell’s plan risks a major oil spill, with no assurances that the company could respond effectively to an oil disaster. The group says the approval is based on some deeply flawed assumptions, including that Shell could recover an unprecedented 95 percent of oil spilled in Arctic water using mechanical containment and recovery efforts like booms and skimmers, despite the fact that such efforts only recovered 8 percent of oil after the Exxon Valdez spill, and only 5 percent of oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill.
The conservation group also pointed out that an evaluation of an oil-spill response drill in the Beaufort Sea described mechanical cleanup efforts in icy conditions as a “failure.”
According to the environmental group, Shell’s response plan only plans for a “worst-case” spill in relatively warm and ice-free August conditions, despite the fact that Shell wants to drill through October, when ice, darkness and bad weather prevail.
“This is a disaster waiting to happen, but still BOEMRE is moving forward with Arctic Ocean drilling,” said Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris. “Scientific integrity and government accountability took their familiar back seat to oil company profits and power today. BOEMRE’s decision to disregard science and gamble with a region that is crucial to endangered bowhead whales, seals, polar bears and other marine wildlife and that Native subsistence communities rely upon so heavily is inexcusable. Today’s decision is nothing more than the administration’s decision to roll the dice with the Arctic.”
BOEMRE said it found no evidence that the proposed action would significantly affect the quality of the human environment, concluding there is no need for a more in-depth environmental impact statement. Instead, the agency issues a formal Finding of No Significant Impact.
Other agencies have said more study of Arctic marine ecosystems are needed prior to approval of any drilling plan. The U.S. Geological Survey earlier this year completed a comprehensive assessment of existing scientific data on the effects of oil and gas development in America’s Arctic Ocean, concluding that a basic understanding of the Arctic Ocean ecosystem before drilling proceeds.
Shell’s planned drilling is directly in the fall migration path of endangered bowhead whales and could block them from reaching an important feeding and resting area. Shell estimates that close to 5,600 migrating bowhead whales, almost half the population, could be exposed to sound and disturbance from the drilling and icebreaking that could cause them to change their behavior and avoid the feeding area. This could harm the population, particularly mothers and young calves, and could affect Alaska American Indian communities that rely on the bowhead whale and other species to maintain their subsistence way of life.
“The Obama administration continues its policy of selling off the environment and through that, Alaska Native peoples, to the highest bidder,” said Carole Holley, Alaska program co-director with Pacific Environment. “We know that there’s no way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic. The Department of Interior knows it too. Approving Shell’s exploration plan for the Beaufort Sea is a completely irrational decision, driven by industry greed and politicians rather than science and the health of people and the environment.”
“We’ve already watched oil spreading over Prince William Sound. Last summer we watched it gush into the Gulf of Mexico. If we fail to act on the lessons learned from these tragedies, we could soon find ourselves in Alaska’s Arctic, watching another disaster unfold,” said Andrew Hartsig, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program. “A comprehensive Arctic research program is needed to promote informed decision-making on oil and gas activities and to measure and monitor impacts on Arctic ecological resources. The necessary work can begin now, and it can be conducted within a reasonable period of time. With that information in hand, we can make no-regrets choices for our Arctic seas.”
“REDOIL, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, is in opposition to the exploration activities of Shell Oil, which have been approved by BOEMRE,” said Robert Thompson, Inupiat resident of Kaktovik and the Chairman of REDOIL.
“We take this position as a means to protect indigenous culture. The Inupiat culture has thrived for thousands of years. We have a close relationship with the bowhead whales and marine life of our region,” Thompson added. “Climate change is happening. The proposed activities, which lack a credible plan to deal with oil spills, if allowed, can have a devastating effect on our already stressed ecosystem. Our ecosystem and culture should not be put in jeopardy for the profit of a foreign oil giant.”
Filed under: BP Gulf oil spill, Environment, federal government, public lands, Summit County news Tagged: | Arctic oil drilling, Beaufort Sea, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, Deepwater horizon oil spill, energy, Environment, offshore drilling, Shell Beaufort sea oil drilling, Summit County News