One year after the BP tragedy, Arctic Ocean still at risk to offshore drilling

Twelve short months ago, most Americans knew very little about offshore oil drilling and its dangers. Then, in a tragic accident that was both sudden and drawn out, the Deepwater Horizon unexpectedly exploded killing 11 crew members and beginning the worst oil spill disaster in U.S. history.

As oil gushed from a well approximately a mile beneath the ocean’s surface, cleanup crews rushed to the Gulf to try to protect fragile coastal wetlands and the birds and wildlife that depend on them.  Fishing boat captains volunteered their own vessels to help contain and clean up some of the spill even as oily surface slicks and undersea plumes stretched for many miles.

Away from the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf, experts and activists called for reforms to offshore drilling to ensure that the disaster in the Gulf would not be repeated elsewhere, like in the Arctic Ocean.

While drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean might look simple on paper — drilling in hundreds of feet of water instead of Deepwater’s thousands — the complications are much greater. Gale force winds, fog, and shifting sea ice all make drilling in the Arctic Ocean a difficult proposition at best. But while the conditions are dangerous for people and drilling operations, the frigid waters teem with life. Bowhead, and finback whales as well as seals, walruses, and polar bears could be devastated by a major oil spill in the Arctic.

Like deepwater in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Ocean is a “frontier” area for offshore drilling because it represents new and more difficult drilling conditions than have been encountered during the many years of shallow offshore drilling. The Obama Administration realized the increased risks that drilling in frontier conditions could pose and postponed Shell’s 2010 drilling plans for the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea. A recent federal analysis of the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea leasing area showed that a well blowout could take months to plug and could spill from 58-90 million gallons depending on the type of relief well drilling capacity utilized to stop a well blowout similar to BP’s.

Too little research has been conducted on the natural resources of the Arctic Ocean to date, and no proven method of cleanup has been developed to effectively address an Arctic spill. A recent spill off the coast of Norway showed trapped oil under the ice, greatly hampering cleanup.

The Wilderness Society, along with a host of other organizations, has been pushing the Department of the Interior to fully review the environmental impacts of oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean before allowing any drilling. The National Oil Spill Commission — set up by the President in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster — recommended numerous measures to improve safety and environmental protection which need to be enacted by Congress and federal regulators. Without these measures in place along with sufficient research on the marine and coastal resources likely to be impacted, and until there are adequate and proven cleanup technologies, it makes no sense to place the Arctic Ocean and the nearby communities which rely on its resources at risk.