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Arctic offshore spill preparation lacking

Jeffrey Short

On March 24, 1989, in the dead of Alaska night, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into the frigid Alaska water. The spill was the largest in U.S. history at the time, and its remote location, accessible only by helicopter and boat, made clean-up efforts all the more difficult and complicated.

Having worked on oil pollution research in Alaska for over a decade prior to the spill, I was there a week later as the spill contaminated approximately 1,300 miles of shoreline, collecting water samples beneath the oil slick. The widespread devastation to wildlife, and later to the livelihoods of those I met who depended on fishing and subsistence food-gathering, are not the kinds of memories anyone wants.

Twenty years after Exxon Valdez, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico thrust me back into the oil spill spotlight. I found myself once again flying over oil sheens in a helicopter, watching as boats tried their best to boom oil, but ultimately accomplished little. It had been a long time since Exxon, yet clean up technology remained as ineffectual as ever.

I have spent the last two years working in the Gulf of Mexico, dedicating my time to making sure the fishermen and businesses that lost millions from the disaster get proper reimbursement from the oil company -- British Petroleum -- that has made billions while putting local people's livelihoods at risk.

I'm frequently asked to compare the two spills. While no two spills are ever alike, these two could hardly be more different: in temperature, type of oil, site of release, wildlife at risk, number of people affected and resources to support the response, among much else. The wildlife consequences were severe in the Exxon Valdez spill because it happened at the very worst time of year, right at the beginning of the spring production cycle, so seabirds and marine mammals were converging on the area to break the winter fast, and the oil exposure killed a lot of them.

In the Gulf of Mexico spill, the oil was coming from the seafloor, and many of the worst effects are only now coming to light. It took nearly a decade to fully appreciate how much oil lingered in Prince William Sound and what it affected, and a similar time span will be needed in the Gulf of Mexico. But fortunately, we at least now have a much better idea of where and how to look for impacts to fish and wildlife as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill.

I had hoped these two devastating events would draw more attention to the larger consequences of our oil addiction. Sadly, recent Arctic offshore approvals for Shell oil have come despite the recommendations of the Obama administration's own commission on the Deepwater Horizon and offshore drilling.

In the Arctic, responders could face a nightmare of icy conditions, dense fog that lasts weeks and hurricane-force winds. In a place more than 5,500 miles from Washington, D.C., where the decision to drill is being made and nearly 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard facilities, there is no reliable method for cleaning up even a small oil spill in Arctic conditions; there are not sufficient personnel or equipment in the region capable of carrying out an effective response plan offshore; and there are gaps in basic scientific information about the ocean ecosystem needed to prioritize response, rescue, and cleanup efforts and equipment.

Shell is currently organizing their armada of vessels to drill in the Arctic Ocean this summer. I have to think to myself, will it be deja vu all over again? The stage is being set for yet another major oil spill in America in my lifetime. I hope not ... but because Shell is counting on avoiding a spill, I guess all we have is hope.

Dr. Jeffrey Short retired after 31 years as a research chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was the lead chemist for both the state of Alaska and federal governments on the Exxon Valdez oil spill.