Center For American Progress: The Arctic Should Remain Off-Limits To Offshore Drilling

A comparison of the oil spill response capability in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. Click to enlarge.

A major report on the prospect of offshore drilling in the Arctic by the Center for American Progress concludes that the oil industry is not prepared to prevent disaster to this remote and fragile region. The Obama administration’s offshore drilling oversight agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, has approved Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea beginning in the summer of 2012, pending approval by other agencies.

In “Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling: America’s Inability to Respond to an Oil Spill in the Arctic,” the authors, Kiley Kroh, Michael Conathan, and Emma Huvos, investigate the prospect of drilling in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth, and find the preparations by the oil and gas industry, federal agencies, and Congress are inadequate, overstretched, and untested:

This report outlines the specific shortcomings in both Shell’s response plans and the private- and public-sector response capabilities to a devastating oil spill in the Arctic region of the United States. Failing to meet the targets laid out here will expose the residents and natural resources of one of the last unspoiled places on the planet to an unacceptable level of risk. Until the oil and gas industry and its federal partners can demonstrate with certainty that they can identify and respond to a true worst-case scenario incident, the Arctic should remain off-limits to exploration and drilling.

In one telling example of dangerous shortcuts in the rush to drilling, Shell’s spill response plan describes a “worst-case scenario” of a spill happening in the relatively warm month of August, although it submitted plans to drill into the drastically harsher month of October.

The report also contrasts the very limited infrastructure for oil spill response in Alaska to the robust infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico (which was still unable to prevent serious harm from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster).

In October, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Jane Lubchenco told ThinkProgress Green that the implications of accelerating climate change by drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic has “huge implications for the global system.” Although NOAA is the nation’s top oceanographic agency, its scientists play only a minor, advisory role in the government’s approval of offshore drilling, which is run by the Interior Department. NOAA plays a larger role in cleaning up after oil spills.

Below is the summary of CAP’s recommendations for what needs to happen before offshore Arctic drilling should proceed:

For Shell:
— Develop a credible worst-case scenario—have a well-designed and vetted emergency plan in place that includes proof of the ability to respond to a worst-case blowout/oil spill
— Demonstrate that a blowout can be contained, including the required installation of redundant emergency shut-off systems
— Ensure adequate response capabilities are in place before drilling operations commence

For the federal government:
— Require and oversee oil spill response drills in the Arctic that prove the assertions made in company drilling plans prior to plan approval
— Improve weather and ocean prediction and monitoring capabilities to ensure a safe and effective oil spill
— Engage other Arctic nations in developing an international oil spill response agreement that includes an Arctic Ocean drilling management plan

For Congress:
— Appropriate adequate funds for the Coast Guard to carry out its mission in the Arctic, including increasing our icebreaking capability
— Significantly increase the liability cap (currently $75 million) for oil companies in violation of drilling safety rules
— Appropriate additional funds for NOAA research and development to increase oil spill response capacity in the Arctic

Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director for Ocean Communications, Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy, and Emma Huvos is an intern at the Center for American Progress.

Download the “Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling” report.

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