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Shell is overselling claims about arctic spill cleanup

Jim Ayers,Whit Sheard

Shell's rosy picture of interim findings from industry-funded studies on cleaning up oil spills (ADN, 11/17/09) requires rose-colored glasses to see.

Based on results of tests off the coast of Norway, the industry claims they could effectively clean up an oil spill off of Alaska's coast. One test, in favorable Spring conditions, does not prove a spill could be cleaned up in an unforgiving Arctic environment where gale force winds, churning ice-filled waters, and complete darkness are plausible conditions.

In fact, Shell's non-peer reviewed interim findings do little to disprove the consensus from Arctic nations that cleanup of oil spills in Arctic conditions are ‘extremely challenging,' ‘limited,' and ‘unreliable and untested' (2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment pg. 138). Four hundred scientists expressed a similar view in a recent letter to the Administration.

Too many questions remain before we turn over huge areas of the Arctic Ocean -- one of the most biologically sensitive, rapidly-changing and least studied area on the planet -- to billion-dollar oil companies. An oil spill in the Arctic would be an environmental catastrophe for polar bears, whales and other marine life, and could devastate subsistence communities that rely on healthy ocean ecosystems.

It took 74 days to stop the recent leak from an oil platform in the Timor Sea; estimates of that spill reach into the millions of gallons. The average of a spill a day from onshore North Slope facilities demonstrates the challenges in Alaska's extreme environment. The lingering effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, for which Exxon has never taken full responsibility or made proper restitution, are a testament to the need for caution and the permanent damage that happens when oil pours into the ocean.

Along with the risk of spills, offshore drilling brings other risks, including transport of invasive species in ballast water or on vessels and drilling rigs, increased risk of chronic pollution from oil and other contaminants, increased likelihood of vessel strikes to marine mammals, and noise pollution from seismic testing, increased vessel traffic and platform operations. Many of these activities are occurring already.

It is encouraging that the oil industry recognizes the dangers of an oil spill in the Arctic and the need for effective clean-up measures. This need for adequate risk management, and the concurrent need for a comprehensive research program, was the foundation of the Arctic Fishery Management Plan recently finalized by NOAA Fisheries.

The Plan closes the Arctic to any expansion of commercial fishing to allow increased scientific research and an informed evaluation of risk. This approach enjoyed support from the fishing industry, local communities, scientists, conservationists and the general public, and provides a clear example for other industries, and other federal agencies, of how we can "do it right" in the Arctic.

Rather than following this example, the Department of Interior-an agency tasked with ensuring the stewardship of our public resources-opened over 70 million acres of these same Arctic waters to oil leasing, and approved multiple plans for drilling in the Beaufort by as early as next summer. A similar decision for the Chukchi is looming, despite Interior's own research that predicts a large oil spill will occur if drilling is allowed to proceed (EIS of MMS Five-Year Plan).

Our addiction to oil is already stressing the Arctic, as climate change caused by our carbon emissions melts Arctic sea ice and raises levels of ocean acidity. We cannot afford to add more stresses, nor can we afford another Exxon Valdez. America deserves an approach based on sound science, with proven spill response capabilities in place, before we gamble with the Arctic as we did with Prince William Sound.

It is time for the federal government to step on the brakes, engage in meaningful dialogue with traditional subsistence communities, and place Arctic offshore drilling plans in a ‘timeout' while all parties can help develop a comprehensive research and management plan to protect this vibrant and rapidly-changing national treasure.

Jim Ayers is Vice President of Oceana, an international organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the world's oceans.

Whit Sheard is the Alaska Program Director for Pacific Environment, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the living environment of the Pacific Rim.


BY JIM AYERS AND WHIT SHEARD