TomDispatch has an article asking "Will the Obama Administration Allow Shell Oil to Do to Arctic Waters What BP Did to the Gulf?" - BPing the Arctic ?.
Unfortunately, as you've already guessed, I’m not here just to tell you about the glories -- and extremity -- of the Alaskan Arctic, which happens to be the most biologically diverse quadrant of the entire circumpolar north. I’m writing this piece because of the oil, because under all that life and beauty in the melting Arctic there’s something our industrial civilization wants, something oil companies have had their eyes on for a long time now.
If you’ve been following the increasing ecological devastation unfolding before our collective eyes in the Gulf of Mexico since BP’s rented Deepwater Horizon exploratory drilling rig went up in flames (and then under the waves), then you should know about -- and protest -- Shell Oil’s plan to begin exploratory oil drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas this summer.
On March 31st, standing in front of an F-18 "Green Hornet" fighter jet and a large American flag at Andrews Air Force Base, President Obama announced a new energy proposal, which would open up vast expanses of America’s coastlines, including the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, to oil and gas development. Then, on May 13th, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed a victory to Shell Oil. It rejected the claims of a group of environmental organizations and Native Inupiat communities that had sued Shell and the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) to stop exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic seas.
Fortunately, Shell still needs air quality permits from the Environmental Protection Agency as well as final authorization from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar before the company can send its 514-foot drilling ship, Frontier Discoverer, north this summer to drill three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and two in the Beaufort Sea. Given what should by now be obvious to all about the dangers of such deep-water drilling, even in far less extreme climates, let’s hope they don’t get either the permits or the authorization.
On May 14th, I called Robert Thompson, the current board chair of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL). “I’m very stressed right now,” he told me. “We’ve been watching the development of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf on television. We’re praying for the animals and people there. We don’t want Shell to be drilling in our Arctic waters this summer.”
As it happened, I was there when, in August 2006, Shell’s first small ship arrived in the Beaufort Sea. Robert’s wife Jane caught it in her binoculars from her living-room window and I photographed it as it was scoping out the sea bottom in a near-shore area just outside Kaktovik. Its job was to prepare the way for a larger seismic ship due later that month.
Since then, Robert has been asking one simple question: If there were a Gulf-like disaster, could spilled oil in the Arctic Ocean actually be cleaned up?
He’s asked it in numerous venues -- at Shell’s Annual General Meeting in The Hague in 2008, for instance, and at the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromsø, Norway, that same year. At Tromsø, Larry Persily -- then associate director of the Washington office of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and since December 2009, the federal natural gas pipeline coordinator in the Obama administration -- gave a 20-minute talk on the role oil revenue plays in Alaska’s economy.
During the question-and-answer period afterwards, Robert typically asked: “Can oil be cleaned up in the Arctic Ocean? And if you can’t answer yes, or if it can’t be cleaned up, why are you involved in leasing this land? And I’d also like to know if there are any studies on oil toxicity in the Arctic Ocean, and how long will it take for oil there to break down to where it’s not harmful to our marine environment?”
Persily responded: “I think everyone agrees that there is no good way to clean up oil from a spill in broken sea ice. I have not read anyone disagreeing with that statement, so you’re correct on that. As far as why the federal government and the state government want to lease offshore, I’m not prepared to answer that. They’re not my leases, to be real honest with everyone.”
A month after that conference, Shell paid an unprecedented $2.1 billion to the MMS for oil leases in the Chukchi Sea. In October and December 2009, MMS approved Shell’s plan to drill five exploratory wells. In the permit it issued, the MMS concluded that a large spill was “too remote and speculative an occurrence” to warrant analysis, even though the agency acknowledged that such a spill could have devastating consequences in the Arctic Ocean’s icy waters and could be difficult to clean up.
It would be an irony of sorts if the only thing that stood between the Obama administration and an Arctic disaster-in-the-making was BP’s present catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.