Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Unacceptable Risks of Arctic Drilling

Drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic is one of the most controversial corollaries of a warmer world. In addition to climate change causing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels there are also a number of environmental risks associated with drilling in a region as remote as the Arctic. The catastrophic impacts from oil spills and difficulties in cleaning up such spills are at the top of those risks.

As quoted by Earth Justice, Kevin Harun, Arctic Program Director, Pacific Environment said, “The Arctic’s marineenvironment is relatively pristine, yet fragile and extremely vulnerable to potential oil impacts. It is clear that the oil industry is not prepared to drill safely in Arctic waters. What’s at stake here is one of the important ecosystems on the planet and food security of indigenous peoples who depend on these Arctic marine waters for sustenance.”

Nonetheless, as the Arctic warms and the ice retreats the race is on to extract resources from this fragile region.  Oil companies are increasingly pursuing Arctic oil. In 2012 Russia was already lining up investors to drill in the Arctic. Since 2005 oil bids for leases in the Arctic Chukchi and Beaufort seas, an area rich in marine life, total more than $2.7 billion. These two seas are home to half of America's polar bears, whales, walruses, seals and other wildlife. All of which are already suffering due to climate change. An oil spill, which is almost certain, would add insult to injury.

“The Chukchi Sea provides important habitat for many special animals, including walruses, bowhead whales, seals, polar bears and migratory birds. Drilling for oil and gas in this vulnerable region could have enormous impacts—and there’s no proven way to clean up a major oil spill in these waters,” said Andrew Hartsig, Director of Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program. “Lease Sale 193 should not be affirmed. Instead, the Obama Administration should focus on protecting important marine areas in the Chukchi Sea and other parts of the Arctic Ocean.”

Last January, the Ninth Circuit Court declared the Chukchi Lease Sale 193 unlawful. Their ruling indicates that the Bush Administration wildly underestimated the risks of spills and other hazards when it opened the Chukchi Sea to oil leasing and exploration in 2008. The court found that the environmental impact statement for the sale arbitrarily analyzed “only the best case scenario for environmental harm.” 

A recent report showed how an oil spill is likely if we drill for oil in the Arctic and this would be calamitous for local wildlife. The report from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) declared that Arctic drilling for oil comes with a 75 percent chance of a large spill (more than 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, of oil).

"There's no such thing as safe oil exploration, drilling and transport - there will be spills," said Dune Lankard, Eyak Preservation Council. When such spills do occur there is no way effectively to clean up or contain them in Arctic Ocean conditions.

The BOEM analysis reveals that such a spill would cause hypothermia in polar bears and ingestion would cause ulcers, liver damage, and brain damage. Exposure to crude oil would be lethal for beluga whales and it would disrupt the October migration of endangered bowhead whales. Pacific walrus are also vulnerable to a spill.

In addition to the risk from a spill noise pollution from Arctic drilling is also a threat to seals and whales. More than 50,000 seals and 6,000 whales may be exposed to noise that could disrupt vital life activities like migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding and sheltering.

“Whether it will be from an almost inevitable oil spill, or from the unavoidable noises from seismic surveys, vessel and platform stabilization, underwater acoustic communications, seafloor hydrocarbon processing, and re-injection well compressors; we know that oil and gas operations will disrupt the habitat for Arctic marine,” said Michael Stocker, Director, Ocean Conservation Research.

Despite the fact these known impacts, the US department of the Interior has opened the door to Arctic drilling. Exxon Mobil began drilling in Russia's Arctic on Aug. 9, 2014 and others will follow. After spending 5 billion on exploration then being forced to sit-out 2013 due to protests and accidents, Shell will resume its Arctic drilling in 2015.

Shell is clearly unprepared for Arctic drilling. The proposed resumption of activities in the Arctic comes after Shell’s rig had to flee from a 30-mile-long iceberg and its drill rig carrying 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel, ran aground near Kodiak, Alaska during relatively routine winter weather in 2012. One of Shell's spill-response barges was also detained for 400 safety-related defects. Noble Drilling, the company that operated Shell’s two drill rigs used in the 2012 Arctic offshore season, was forced to pay $12.2 million in fines stemming from environmental and safety violations aboard its vessels.

“Shell’s disastrous 2012 Arctic Ocean drilling and transport operations demonstrate that even technically advanced and well-resourced companies are no match for Arctic conditions and the challenges of getting to and from there,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Regional Director for The Wilderness Society.

As explained by Susan Murray, Deputy Vice President, Pacific for Oceana. “Shell has demonstrated, companies are not ready to operate safely in the Arctic Ocean.”

While oil giants like ConocoPhilips and Statoil have canceled plans to drill in the Arctic or put their drilling on hold there are a number of others that are undeterred by the risks.

Cindy Shogan, Executive Director for Alaska Wilderness League, described Arctic drilling as “unsafe, dangerous and irresponsible.” Stocker added, “opening the Arctic to fossil fuel extraction is just plain reckless,”

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