Protecting Our Arctic Seas is the Conservative Choice

Polar bear walks on icy sea

While the most vehement of oil drilling advocates are howling in protest over recent decisions to place much of America’s Arctic Ocean waters off-limits to drilling, any objective person with knowledge of the risks, financial and ecological, should see why delaying such activities is the prudent and conservative choice.

First of all, the current low price of oil—along with an abundance of cheaper and easier oil production opportunities in North Dakota, Texas and the Gulf of Mexico—make risky, expensive arctic drilling both uneconomical and unnecessary. In fact, after investing millions of dollars in arctic exploration and leases, Royal Dutch Shell abandoned the region because it determined that the risks and costs outweighed the benefits.

Just how risky is drilling in the arctic seas off of Alaska?

After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the bi-partisan commission that investigated the incident (National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling) pointed out the risks.

  • Snowy Owl Flying Over Frozen ShorelineThe Alaskan Arctic is characterized by extreme cold, extended seasons of darkness, hurricane-strength storms, and pervasive fog—all affecting access and working conditions. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are covered by varying forms of ice for eight to nine months a year. These conditions limit exploratory drilling and many other activities to the summer months. The icy conditions during the rest of the year pose severe challenges for oil and gas operations and scientific research. And oil-spill response efforts are complicated year-round by the remote location and the presence of ice, at all phases of exploration and possible production.
  • The stakes for drilling in the U.S. Arctic are raised by the richness of its ecosystems. The marine mammals in the Chukchi and Beaufort are among the most diverse in the world, including seals, cetaceans, whales, walruses, and bears. The Chukchi Sea is home to roughly one-half of America’s and one-tenth of the world’s polar bears….The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas also support millions of shorebirds, seabirds, and waterfowl, as
    well as abundant fish populations.
  • Current federal emergency response capabilities in the region are very limited: the Coast Guard operations base nearest to the Chukchi region is on Kodiak Island, approximately 1,000 miles from the leasing sites. The Coast Guard does not have sufficient ice-class vessels capable of responding to a spill under Arctic conditions: two of its three polar icebreakers have exceeded their service lives and are non-operational.

The Commission also noted that oil companies have never successfully demonstrated the ability to clean up a spill in icy arctic waters and that producing oil there (if there is any) would require “a level of performance higher than they have ever achieved before.”

It also offered the following: “One lesson from the Deepwater Horizon crisis is the compelling economic, environmental, and indeed human rationale for understanding and addressing the prospective risks comprehensively, before proceeding to drill in such challenging waters.”

The Bare Minimum

The Commission’s report included specific recommended actions that represent the bare minimum required to drill responsibly:

  • …an immediate, comprehensive federal research effort to provide a foundation of scientific information on the Arctic and annual stock assessments for marine mammals, fish, and birds that use the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.
  • A comprehensive interagency research program to address oil-spill containment and response issues in the Arctic. Spill trajectory and weather models based on Arctic conditions must also be developed.
  • …the Department of the Interior should ensure that the containment and response plans proposed by industry are adequate for each stage of development and that the underlying financial and technical capabilities have been satisfactorily demonstrated in the Arctic.
  • Congress should provide the resources to establish Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic, based on the Coast Guard’s review of current and projected gaps in its capacity.

Falling on Deaf Ears

It has been five years since the Commission made these very prudent, common sense recommendations, and yet none of them have been adhered to. Neither Congress nor the oil and gas industry is willing to meet the high bar required to safely drill in these harsh, yet ecologically vital waters.

Those who seek to drill here—mostly the Alaska delegation and lawmakers supported by the oil industry—are not interested in understanding the risks, or protecting a fragile ecosystem. They want to throw all caution to the wind, to pursue reward without any responsibility—and there is nothing conservative about that.

Read our recent op-ed on this issue in Real Clear EnergyNothing Conservative About Rush to Drill Arctic

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