Ocean Currents

Failing to BSEE the Risk of Arctic Drilling

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Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decisions on Arctic oil and gas lease sales in the new five year offshore drilling program. That day, there was both promising and discouraging news. Today, however, the news is not mixed: Ocean Conservancy – in conjunction with a coalition of like-minded groups – is filing suit in federal court challenging the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s (BSEE) approval of Shell Oil’s spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea. Instead of approving plans that authorize risky exploration drilling, the Obama administration should focus on developing and implementing a comprehensive science and monitoring plan so that we can make more informed decisions about whether, when, where, and how to allow drilling in the Arctic.

Shell is proposing major industrial activity in a remote and dangerous place. The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sub-zero temperatures, and months-long darkness. There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in these extreme conditions. And on top of all that, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure: There are no roads or deep water ports and only a handful of small airports. The nearest Coast Guard station is over 1,000 miles away.

In addition, there is no evidence that Shell is prepared to respond to and clean-up a spill in the Arctic. To date, there have been no tests of skimming and booming in domestic Arctic waters since 2000. Those decade-old tests were widely viewed as failures. Shell’s capping stack and Arctic containment system have never been used in the Arctic and there have been no tests of these systems in Arctic conditions.

Although the Arctic marine environment is one of most challenging on the face of the earth, that alone is not grounds for litigation. We filed this legal complaint because BSEE failed to adequately scrutinize Shell’s oil spill response plan and the potential impacts of Shell’s proposed response techniques.

  • BSEE approved the spill response plan even though portions of the plan were premised on the unrealistic assumption that Shell will be able to clean up more than 90% of spilled oil in a catastrophic spill;
  • BSEE did not adequately review sensitive environmental areas in the Arctic to ensure Shell’s spill plans would provide the required degree of protection;
  • BSEE did not comply with the environmental analysis requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act – it did not prepare an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment in conjunction with Shell’s spill response plan.

Right now, the United States relies on fossil fuels, but going forward, we must reduce our dependence. As we make this transition, we must ensure our energy development is safe and responsible, that it incorporates more and more renewable energy sources, and that it is coupled with sensible conservation measures and investments. Drilling holes in the seafloor of the most unforgiving environments on earth will not move us in the right direction.

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