We're not ready to drill safely in the Arctic

For those of us who have watched with dismay as the Obama administration moves forward with approval after approval of Shell's oil drilling permits for the Arctic Ocean, there's a logical disconnect: Why would the administration allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean when there's a reasonable likelihood of a disaster in the making?

Consider these three critical concerns:

• Very few of the post-BP Oil Spill Commission's and the National Academy of Engineering's recommendations have been implemented, including no reforms to date by Congress.

• Our understanding of the region's ecology and the impacts a major spill would have, including on subsistence, is greatly insufficient, according to the administration's own study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Additionally, there's no plan to remedy that problem.

• Spill "cleanup" technologies are primitive, with recovery of oil contacting the ocean measured in single-digit percentages.

The reforms that the former Minerals Management Service has enacted since the BP spill, while not insignificant, are nowhere near enough to ensure there will not be a major spill associated with offshore drilling in the Arctic. We are not ready to drill there.

Perhaps most important regarding Shell, the company had major offshore drilling-related spills in the North Sea in August and off Nigeria in December, both from low-tech problems that should never have happened. These spills -- the worst in a decade in each region -- do not inspire confidence in the company's ability to operate without problems and appear to show a poor company-wide "safety culture."

On top of this problematic recent spill record, add the harsh, unforgiving Arctic environment with high winds, frequent fog, strong currents, and ice and cold water that make current "cleanup" strategies essentially useless. Is the administration taking companywide problems and natural hurdles into account?

Shell, the oil industry and their congressional allies have put relentless pressure on the administration to approve oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean as soon as 2012. This pressure includes a refusal by Alaska's elected officials and many in Congress to acknowledge that anything can go wrong during Arctic offshore drilling, and that adequate governmental oversight, resources and onshore infrastructure (currently lacking in the U.S. Arctic) are necessary to ensure that there are no major problems.

For example, when the administration issued a permit in December for Shell's proposed drilling in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea, it contained a condition that drilling must end early enough to ensure same-season relief well drilling capability, essential to stop an unexpected blowout. Rather than support the administration's effort to protect the Arctic and its residents, Sen. Mark Begich called the condition a "short-sighted decision" and Sen. Lisa Murkowski deemed it arbitrary.

The BP tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010 in which 11 died and approximately 200 million gallons were released served as a warning for the country that our offshore drilling system -- i.e., the technology and the oversight -- requires major changes. December's sinking of a Russian drill rig in Arctic sea conditions with 17 known dead and 36 missing is yet another warning.

Is it going to require a drilling-related loss of workers or a major spill in the Arctic Ocean in order for the administration and Alaska's elected officials to realize that we are not ready to proceed?

Lois Epstein is an engineer, Arctic Program director for The Wilderness Society and a member of the Offshore Energy Safety Advisory Committee for the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.