Broken Promises: The reality of oil development in America's Arctic

Oil well on Alaska's North Slope. Photo by Anne Gore.

The oil and gas industry has been promoting Alaska’s North Slope as the gold standard for “clean” oil development, asserting that new technology has shrunk industry’s footprint and will make future development less harmful to the environment.

The facts tell a different story.

Broken Promises, a new Wilderness Society report, calls attention to the gaps between promise and reality, casting doubt on the assurances issued by Arctic drilling proponents.

Among the broken promises disputed by the report are claims that spills, like the recent oil disaster in Australia, can be controlled through operational excellence, environmental safeguards, and spill response. Industry says spills have short-term impacts but no lasting effects.

The reality is far different: spills occur frequently, failures to respond to spills are common, and impacts can last for decades.

In Australia, as many as 28,000 barrels of oil gushed into the waters off the country’s northern coast over a ten-week period when a relatively newly constructed oil rig caught fire and began leaking. The spill, rivaling the Exxon Valdez disaster, was only recently plugged and according to reports could take more than seven years to clean up.

In Alaska, despite oil and gas industry claims to the contrary, spills occur frequently and often are undetected or ignored. Each year, an average of 450 oil and other toxic spills occur on Alaska’s North Slope as a result of oil and gas activity.

Despite industry’s best intentions to minimize impacts, environmental and social effects are adding up and resulting in lasting harm to ecosystems and indigenous cultures. Opening new areas to drilling will not only add to these impacts but will also contribute to our Earth’s warming climate, an increasingly serious concern, especially in Arctic regions.

Polar bear. Photo by Ken Whitten.Many of Alaska’s most extraordinary wildlife values are also at risk. America’s Arctic provides important habitat for migratory birds and fish, globally significant marine life, and hundreds of species rare elsewhere in the world, including the polar bear. Oil and gas drilling would simply make things worse for polar bears and numerous other key wildlife species like the Pacific walrus, beluga whales, gray whales, numerous sea birds and more — as well as Inupiat and Gwich’in people who depend on the Arctic’s environment to survive.

Recently, the Department of the Interior designated proposed critical habitat for polar bears in America’s Arctic. This is a step in the right direction, but the designation of critical habitat does not automatically bar commercial activities like oil and gas drilling. While the agency’s critical habitat designation acknowledges that some of the most sensitive areas on land and offshore in America’s Arctic — including much of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — are key to the species survival, without permanent protection this area and all who depend on it remain at risk. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a focus of drilling interests for nearly two decades — provides crucial denning habitat for polar bears and The Wilderness Society continues to fight to protect this iconic wilderness.

While the oil and gas industry makes record profits, the greedy drive to expand industrial uses in a region that is poorly understood and already under enormous stress could have dire consequences, not only for Arctic, but for the planet as a whole.

Continuing to ignore the realities of oil development in America’s Arctic will only further distract from the urgent need to provide real solutions for our nation’s energy and climate challenges. We know too little about the Arctic to continue to open this sensitive, unique environment to sprawling industrial development.

Numerous scientists, members of Congress, federal experts and many who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years all agree: there must be a timeout on all leasing and drilling in the Arctic until a comprehensive plan based on sound science and traditional knowledge is developed to determine if, where, when, and how such activities should occur.

For more on the oil and gas industry’s broken promises and discover the reality of oil development in America’s Arctic click here.

Oil well on Alaska's North Slope. Photo by Anne Gore.
Polar bear. Photo by Ken Whitten.