Conservation groups request Arctic drilling moratorium

Arctic oil drilling Beaufort Sea
Sunset over the Beaufort Sea. Photo courtesy USGS.

Recent mishaps, lack of data cited in request for suspension of operations

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Citing huge data gaps about the basic ecology of the Arctic Ocean, as well as a string of recent accidents and near-misses in Royal Dutch Shell’s ongoing efforts to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, a coalition of environmental groups this week asked the Obama administration to suspend fossil fuel development in the region.

The letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came just a few days after the Interior Department announced a 60-day assessment of the Arctic offshore drilling program.

In a press release, the groups said any investigation will show that oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean cannot be conducted now in a safe and responsible manner. Along with equipment issues, there are still unanswered questions about the ability to contain and clean up potential spills in the remote, harsh Arctic environment. Those questions remain despite the fact the federal government has already signed off on Shell’s emergency response plan.

“Conservation groups have long called for a time out,” said Alaska-based Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe. The investigation should go beyond looking at Shell’s recent equipment failures and scrutinize the permitting process that allowed the various mishaps, Grafe said.

“We should asking for something broader … And reconsider whether we should be up there at all right now. The Interior Department assessment shouldn’t shy away and shouldn’t prejudge that,” he said. Fderal regulators also need to acknowledge that there’s not yet enough basic scientific information to make an informed decision as to whether drilling can safely proceed.

“There are huge data gaps about the basic ecology, especially in the Chukchi Sea. That’s  exacerbated by climate change, which is changing changing the ice cover …  It’s a dynamic situation. There are a lot of studies being done, but there is still much unknown about habitat  for megafauna like bowhead whales, for example,” he said.That information is needed so that management can be done in an informed manner,” he added.

Gaps in Arctic information were outlined in a 2011 study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

In their letter to Salazar, the groups said that a moratorium would give federal agencies a chance to  decide if offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean is possible or prudent:

“Ultimately, we believe that a fact-based and clear-eyed re-evaluation that takes into account Shell’s long series of accidents, near-misses, and reversals this year and last year will lead inescapably to the conclusion that oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean cannot be conducted in a safe and responsible manner …

‘“The Kulluk grounding is only the latest incident to show that Shell’s much-touted equipment, planning, and management provide no assurance against the region’s extreme elements and inevitable human missteps. Shell lost control of its other drill rig, the Noble Discoverer, in a protected harbor, and that rig’s operation is now under criminal investigation for potential safety and pollution violations. According to Shell’s supporters, the company developed the best Arctic drilling program ever crafted, but it nevertheless has had severe problems at every stage—from vessel construction to deployment, drilling operations, and transit.”

The Interior Department hasn’t released information on how the assessment will be structured, but Grafe said the federal government should make the process transparent and accessible to to the public.

Although the Obama administration appears dead-set on pursuing Arctic drilling, Grafe said the assessment should try to answer the fundamental question of whether the oil is worth the potential risks.

“We know we have leave some oil in the ground to survive as a planet, to escape a climate calamity. The oil in remote, extreme environments like the Arctic seems like a good candidate for that,” he concluded.

The letter to Salazar was signed by CEOs from Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Environment America, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, League of Conservation Voters, National Audubon Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Environment, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.


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