On Monday the Obama Administration, specifically the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, approved a plan by Shell Oil to begin exploratory drilling for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea, off the north coast of Alaska, on the Outer Continental Shelf. It’s an area where the Bush43 Administration held a lease auction in 2008, but court challenges have prevented the sale from being consummated – until a March 2015 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals paved the way.
The Chukchi Sea is the wedge of the Arctic Ocean which enters the Bering Straight. It’s thought that the continental shelf off this coast is rich with oil fields. The Chukchi shelf is estimated to hold reserves of 30 billion barrels of oil. In 2008, after an oil and gas lease sale that netted the US Government over $2.6 billion, the Anchorage Daily News described the lease sale as a symptom of our collective addiction to gas and oil – echoing Bush43’s statement in his 2006 State of the Union Address that the US is addicted to Gas and Oil. Addicts tend to engage in ever-riskier behavior, like drilling for oil further and further out to sea, or drilling in extremely inhospitable waters like the Arctic, in order to get their fix.
Opening the Chukchi Sea to exploratory drilling is just the opening salvo of a five year plan by the Obama Administration to launch oil and gas drilling in 14 areas of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. Three of the areas are off the Alaska Coast, while the others are either off the Atlantic Coast or in the Gulf of Mexico.
In a New York Times OpEd piece, 350.org founder Bill McKibben called this Obama’s Catastrophic Climate Change Denial. What with the Arctic melting (so that commercial ocean activities can proceed without that pesky ice) one might think, McKibben proposes, that Shell would be smart enough to realize it’s folly to keep drilling for oil and move into solar panels instead. Instead Shell is first in line to the trough to keep on keepin’ on with the oil stuff.
This is the areas which are slated to be developed in Alaska’s waters under the Obama Administration plans. You’ll note that most of this is in the Arctic, with another area (Cook Inlet) being the sort of terrain where the Exxon Valdez accident occurred back in the 1990’s.
Shell proposes drilling up to six wells in an offshore area known as the Burger Prospect. It’s in 140 feet of water, and about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright. Drilling will be performed by the drillship M/V Noble Discoverer, and the semi-submersible drilling unit Transocean Polar Pioneer.
For the Chukchi Sea, the BOEM estimated the chance of an oil spill accident during the exploratory drilling phase to be almost nonexistent. However, over the 77 year lifespan expected of these fields, the BOEM estimated a 75% likelihood of at least major oil spill.
What the BOEM Environmental Assessment does not discuss is how will Shell or other parties clean up after a major spill, that we see is very likely to occur? The go-to method for cleaning up oil spills seems to be dispersants like Corexit. But, these dispersants are extremely toxic, and make the toxicity of the situation worse by letting the oil mix more easily with the ocean. Dispersants only hide the oil spill problem, they don’t solve the oil spill. Finally, it’s known they don’t work very well in cold conditions.
With the Obama Administration opening the Arctic to oil drilling, Canada is looking to do the same. The Northwest Territories is seeking permission to increase its borrowing limit to support oil exploration. A federal judge in Anchorage Alaska has ordered Greenpeace to stay away from Shell’s operations, and to not fly drone aircraft in the area.
“Our Arctic ocean is flat out the worst place on Earth to drill for oil,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The world’s last pristine sea, it is both too fragile to survive a spill and too harsh and remote for effective cleanup.”
“It is unconscionable that the federal government is willing to risk the health and safety of the people and wildlife that live near and within the Chukchi Sea for Shell’s reckless pursuit of oil,” said Marissa Knodel, a climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “Shell’s dismal record of safety violations and accidents, coupled with the inability to clean up or contain an oil spill in the remote, dangerous Arctic waters, equals a disaster waiting to happen.”
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