Arctic Waters Safe for Now! Shell ditches plans to drill this year

Another victory in the Arctic!  The Arctic Ocean’s pristine waters and abundant wildlife are safe from drilling for another year. Shell Oil announced Feb. 3 that it has abandoned its plans to drill an exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea several miles off the coast of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2011.

Shell’s CEO announced the company would not proceed until 2012 at the earliest because of delays getting regulatory approvals.  Our continuous pressure on the Obama Administration, including tens of thousands of letters sent by our supporters, has helped ensure better scrutiny on Shell’s attempts to open these wildlife-rich waters that are critically important for Alaska Native subsistence.

The company had attempted to start drilling in the Beaufort Sea, as well as a proposed well in the neighboring Chukchi Sea, in 2010.  As a result of BP’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy, Shell only focused on the Beaufort drilling in 2011, pending the administration’s permission for one exploratory well.  Specifically the oil company was waiting on an air quality permit and final approval from the Department of the Interior.  Last month, an appeals board overturned the previously-issued air permit.

Shell’s decision is great news for those who care about the Arctic because it buys more time to ensure that any drilling, if it happens at all, does not go forward without needed — and more sophisticated than previously performed — environmental analyses.

Right now, there is no proven technology to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean.  There isn’t even a full scientific analysis of the impacts that an oil spill would have on the fragile ecosystem.  Any number of struggling animals could be impacted by an oil spill including polar bears, seals, walruses, and whales, as seen in our slideshow.

“The Arctic Ocean is a valuable resource, especially for Alaska Native coastal communities,” said Lois Epstein, The Wilderness Society’s Arctic Program Director. “Rushing to drill the Arctic Ocean off of Alaska, still a frontier in oil exploration, could have disastrous results.” 

“There are no short-cuts to ensuring safety and environmental protection when drilling in this harsh but tremendously productive marine environment,” said Epstein. 

The delay gives the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement a chance to begin implementing the recommendations of the Oil Spill Commission report, released in January in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. 

Even with improved regulatory oversight, new research on the ocean’s baseline biology and ecology, and additional cleanup strategies written into drilling plans, the Arctic Ocean will remain a dangerous place to drill for oil.  Long, cold winter nights and strong seasonal storms would put year-round production facilities at risk from floating and pack ice, which also introduce numerous cleanup difficulties.  And there still aren’t permanent Coast Guard facilities near the proposed drill sites — making cleanup of even a small oil spill much more difficult.

This victory is a temporary one. We have not moved U.S. society sufficiently toward non-polluting energy alternatives and oil companies will continue to want to drill in sensitive places, including the Arctic. But still, we can  celebrate another year that the pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean, and the population and wildlife that rely on it, does not have the looming threat of a serious oil spill.

Humpback whale. Courtesy NOAA.