Senators call for freeze on Arctic Ocean drilling

Arctic fogbow

flickr, Thoth, God of Knowledge

A coalition of senators have taken a bold step for the Arctic Ocean.

Six U.S. senators have asked Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to delay decisions about new leasing and exploration for offshore oil and gas until the government completes a thorough re-evaluation of the environmental and safety risks, and issues enhanced, Arctic-specific regulations.

“The myriad problems faced last year by Shell Oil Company as it attempted to drill exploration wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas demonstrated the unpredictability, harsh conditions, and heightened potential for human error that characterize any industrial activity in the Arctic Ocean,” the senators said in a letter to Jewell.

Led by Democrats Jeff Merkley (Oregon) and Dick Durbin (Illinois), the senators told Jewell that for sound policies and standards for Arctic drilling to be in place, it essential to have “more thorough scientific evaluation, increased response capability, and a balanced assessment of risks and benefits …(for) this unique area.”

The letter, which was also signed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Barbara Box (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-VT), pointed out that the Interior Department’s proposals to allow offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean have generated controversy among local communities, scientists, members of Congress, the conservation community and the American people.

The senators called Shell’s oil spill response plan “insufficient” and pointed out that an oil spill in Arctic seas would be particularly devastating, and that the industry has no effective way to recover spilled oil under certain Arctic conditions, nor does it have sufficient infrastructure for safe operations or a spill-response effort.

“The Arctic Ocean provides sustenance and cultural continuity for communities that have lived a subsistence lifestyle for millennia. It is home to some of the world’s most iconic wildlife species, including polar bears, bowhead whales and walrus,” the letter stated. “Unfortunately, climate change is warming this region twice as fast as the rest of the planet, putting pressure on the wildlife and native communities that make their home here.”

The senators closed their letter with a simple message:

“A healthy Arctic region will benefit generations of Americans.”

Photo above right: The grounding of Shell's Kulluk vessel on New Year's 2012. US Coast Guard. 

Read their letter to Department of Interior below: