Drilling for Oil and Gas in the Arctic Is Inviting Disaster

Here’s a terrifying thought experiment: imagine an oil disaster like Deepwater Horizon. Same scenario—hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil gushing into the sea, every single day; people missing, presumed dead; the use of massive amounts of chemical dispersants to break down the oil and desperate attempts to contain and stop the unrestrained flow below the surface.

But instead of April in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s December in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea.

It’s dark for every minute of every day. The temperature hardly ever rises above 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and hurricane-force winds are not uncommon. There is no nearby city full of engineers and resources to come to anyone’s aid.

The nearest Coast Guard station is nearly 1,000 miles away—and some of those miles are clogged with ice.

As someone with the uncommon experience of having both led the implementation of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Plan and served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, I can imagine this disaster in vivid detail.

It’s the kind of scenario that keeps me up at night – and in recent months, it’s gotten a lot closer to reality than you might think.

In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing President Obama’s restrictions on Arctic drilling. And last month, the Trump administration approved a proposal to allow the first company, Eni SpA, to start exploratory drilling in the Arctic. The Italian oil giant plans to start drilling in the Beaufort Sea this December.

GettyImages-71209285 A polar bear on the edge of Hudson Bay near the city of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada 10 October, 2002. GUY CLAVEL/AFP/Getty

They won’t yet be drilling at the depths BP was during Deepwater Horizon, but the potential for great harm exists nonetheless. Indeed, the same environmental factors that make spills more difficult to clean up also make them more likely to happen in the first place.

Dealing with these spills in this kind of environment requires knowledge, technical skill, and response capabilities that we simply do not have. Case in point: more than 25 years after Exxon Valdez, there are still no known technologies for cleaning up oil from ice.

Our knowledge of the Beaufort Sea is scant at best, and we have little understanding of how the release of oil and oil dispersants would affect the fragile Arctic ecosystem – or, for that matter, how hard it would be to cap a spill if and when it begins.

And if we have to break ice to reach such a spill – I guess we’d just have to hope the U.S. Government’s one and only fully functioning ice-breaker isn’t in use somewhere else.

Oil companies have a less-than-confidence-inspiring history when it comes to understanding the specific challenges posed by the environments they’re actually working in. I’ll never forget looking back at BP’s oil spill response plan for the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the disaster. It described how wildlife affected by a spill in the Gulf might include sea lions, sea otters, and walruses—none of which actually exist in that environment.

Royal Dutch Shell, which drilled on and off in the Arctic before suspending its operations in 2015, had a series of near-catastrophes – including severe damage to its voluntary spill containment, a rig fire, a huge gouge in the hull of a vessel carrying equipment necessary to cap a damaged well, and the high-stakes rescue of 18 workers stranded when a rig ran aground in rough seas.

I’m a conservationist, but I’m also a realist. As climate change continues to melt the Arctic, it is unearthing a trove of oil and natural gas potentially worth 35 trillion dollars.

I know that the temptation to exploit these resources will likely prove irresistible—no matter what it will mean for the state of the planet our children are going to inherit.

But the least we can do is put in place commonsense regulations for any company that wants to drill in the Arctic. Before getting the go-ahead to drill, companies should be required to do three things: demonstrate that they have thoroughly evaluated all risks specific to that environment; commit to taking complete financial responsibility for any necessary cleanup (and show that they have the resources to do so); and prove that they have response and containment capabilities that work in the Arctic, and work quickly—on the order of days, not weeks or months.

We should also invest substantially in exploring and researching our Arctic ecosystems. You can’t manage or protect what you don’t understand. The sad truth is we know more about the surface of Mars than the bottom of the Arctic Sea. And we can even make these ecosystems more resilient by designating marine protected areas in particularly sensitive areas.  

It’s vital that we get this right—because we’re not the only player in this region. China and Russia are making moves to extract Arctic oil as we speak. We must establish best practices now, before unsafe ones become more and more accepted.

Even today, nearly three decades after our restoration efforts from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there are places on the shore of Prince William Sound where, if you start digging on the beach, you’ll find oil from the spill – starkly illustrating that the consequences of our actions in the Arctic will linger for generations.

It’s a haunting image: as we melt the pristine white ice caps of the north, we may be on course to replace them with toxic black slick. Let’s put in place the simple, practical rules to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Terry Garcia, the CEO of Exploration Ventures, is the former Chief Science & Exploration Officer at National Geographic and the Former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans & Atmosphere and Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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