Environmental groups and specialists hit out at the United States government this week following its announcement that the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell would be allowed to resume offshore exploration and drilling in the Arctic’s US waters.
Unforgiving icy conditions not only make the chances of a spill likely, the lack of infrastructure to deal with a potential disaster also means the consequences of the move could be calamitous, environmental activists and professionals warn.
According to a study published in February by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the same regulatory governmental agency that on Tuesday issued its approval of Shell’s Chukchi Sea exploration plan, the chances of one or more oil spills occurring as a result of drilling in the Arctic over the next 77 years are 75%.
The same study says that in open water or broken ice between 44% and 62% of crude oil resulting from a spill would stay put – neither dispersing nor evaporating – after 30 days.
“The announcement is inconsistent with the federal government’s commitment for stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, it is inconsistent with President Barack Obama’s commitment to combat climate change and it is a clear prioritisation of Shell’s needs ahead of the protection of one of our most important natural resources,” said Michael LeVine, Oceana’s Pacific senior counsel.
LeVine said a spill would have “catastrophic effects on the area’s wildlife and devastate one of the last intact marine ecosystems in the world”.
Michael Conathan, the director of ocean policy at the Centre for American Progress, said the government’s decision was wrong and didn’t make sense.
He added that very little had changed since 2012 when Shell was forced to bring its Arctic explorations to a temporary halt after a series of serious mishaps, including the failure of one of its key pieces
of safety equipment.
Shell appeared to compromise safety regulations further late in 2012 when it hurriedly tried to tow a drilling rig it had been using through stormy weather, running it aground.
A damning report by the US coastguard following the incident suggested the company was trying to avoid paying Alaskan taxes.
Conathan said there was a serious lack of “understanding, information and capacity” to undertake oil exploration safely in the area, pointing out that current local infrastructure included a single road, no rail system and limited airport facilities.
“If there is oil in the Arctic, it will have been there for the past millions of years. This means it will still be there in 50 or 100 years,”
LeVine said, speaking on a call from Juneau in Alaska.
“We should wait until we have figured out ways in which companies can operate safely.”
Conathan said the other elephant in the room beyond the devastating effects of an oil spill no one is equipped to deal with is climate change.
“The reason why the Arctic is even accessible at all is because of the decline in Arctic sea ice,” he said.
Scientists have predicted ice-free summers in the Arctic as early as 2040.
“Producing fossil fuels and then burning them at a greater rate will only accelerate the feedback loop,” Conathan said. – © Guardian News & Media 2015.