After the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama promised cleaner, safer energy development. Yet in the last year, attempts to drill in the U.S. Arctic Ocean have been characterized by a series of missteps and mishaps from beginning to end. Then on Dec. 31, the drilling rig, Kulluk, ran aground on the rocky shoreline of Sitkalidak Island, just southeast of Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska. The rig, which drilled one shallow well in the U.S. Arctic Ocean in the fall, was bound for Seattle when it got caught in a fierce storm.
The grounding took place in 20-25 foot seas and 50 mile per hour winds, but at least it occurred within reach of impressive U.S. Coast Guard support. Farther north where the drilling sites are, conditions can be even more extreme.
Imagine, if you can, an accident in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s sparsely populated north coast. The sea is dominated by fog, shifting ice, subzero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, and weeks-long storms.
Responding to an oil spill in such conditions would be challenging enough. Equally daunting is the region’s lack of a road system, major ports, adequate communication technology, and other basic infrastructure. The nearest Coast Guard base is 1,000 miles away in Kodiak, Alaska. The Coast Guard has just one working icebreaker in the region and has said it would be impossible to send the 3,000 people it deployed to work on the Deepwater Horizon spill to the Arctic.
Before Americans can trust that offshore Arctic exploration will be done safely and cleanly, the federal government needs to ensure that:
- Industry has spill response plans that work and that have been tested in Arctic conditions.
- Biologically significant areas are identified and protected so that bowhead whales, walrus, ice seals, polar bears, and other vulnerable marine mammals found nowhere else in the nation will retain critical habitat.
- Alaska Natives, who for centuries have practiced a traditional way of life dependent on the area’s national bounty, have a voice in planning.
- Long-term scientific research and monitoring programs are put in place.
Science, not politics, needs to guide decisions on whether, when, where, and how to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean. President Obama pledged cleaner, safer energy development. Americans expect him to live up to that promise.
View a photo gallery of Arctic life at risk: