Global environmental challenges
Gulf of Mexico oil spill prompts worries about Arctic drilling
With the spotlight shining on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the executives sizzling in the hot seat on Capitol Hill, environmental advocates are looking north.
They’re worried that Shell Oil will start drilling in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska before the U.S. government reports on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig disaster. And the environmental groups are not comforted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s reassurances that no new drilling will take place until the government report is completed by May 28.
“The May 28 report deadline still leaves ample time should the Department of the Interior choose to allow this ill-advised drilling to move forward in extreme Arctic conditions, where spill response faces additional challenges of sea ice, seas of up to 20 feet, darkness and a virtual lack of infrastructure from which to stage a response,” the environmental groups — Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society — said in a statement.
The Chukchi Sea is home to polar bears, which are already under pressure due to melting summer sea ice in the Arctic. The big white bears are listed as a U.S. threatened species due to the expected continued effects of climate change in the area.
Shell plans to move into the area around July 1, and get to the places where it wants to drill exploratory wells by July 4 if ice permits. They plan to leave for the year by October 31.
An analysis of Shell’s exploration drilling plan by the Pew Environment Group says that provisions for cleanup in the event of a Chukchi Sea oil spill are inadequate and too distant from the prospective drill site. Marilyn Heiman, the former director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Commission and now with the Pew group’s U.S. Arctic program, quoted the Shell exploration drilling plan as saying that “a large oil spill, such as a crude oil release from a blowout, is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact.” Heiman said the U.S. Minerals Management Service’s environmental assessment also dismissed the probability of this kind of blowout and spill as “insignificant.” A blowout at BP’s well off the Louisiana coast is the source of the oil spill there.
Since the BP spill in the Gulf, the Minerals Management Service has asked Shell for additional safety information by May 18, but that may not be enough to allay the environmental groups’ fears. They want the Obama administration to cancel this summer’s plans for Arctic oil exploration.
Photo credits: REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk (Twin six-month-old polar bear cubs play in the city zoo in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 25, 2010)
REUTERS/Jason Reed (President and Chairman of BP America Inc. Lamar McKay in front of protesters before a Senate hearing on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Washington, May 11, 2010)