We Have “Learned Nothing” from BP Disaster: Obama Opens More of Arctic to Offshore Drilling

by Kiley Kroh

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the Obama Administration’s highly anticipated plan for proposed offshore oil and gas leases from 2012–2017. It focuses on exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and giving oil companies the chance to bid on drilling rights in Arctic waters, including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Cook Inlet.

Because the plan targets areas with known potential for oil and gas development where exploration is currently active, the administration is ruling out drilling along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts — including an area near Virginia that had been slated for exploration prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The Arctic lease sales are scheduled late in the 5-year period to allow for further scientific study and data collection, and longer term planning for spill response preparedness and infrastructure. Deputy Secretary David Hayes also indicated that any expansion of Arctic exploration should account for the “Arctic’s unique environmental resources and the social, cultural, and subsistence needs of Native Alaskan communities.”

With the nearest Coast Guard station over 1,000 miles away and with few proven techniques for oil spill cleanup in extreme Arctic conditions, a spill in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas could devastate the entire region. “If a major spill were to occur in Arctic waters, cleanup crews would have to spend, on average, three to five days of each week simply standing by, watching helplessly as the blowout or spill continued to foul fragile Arctic ecosystems,” said World Wildlife Federation program director Rob Powell.

Opening additional areas of drilling in the Arctic when we so clearly lack adequate response capabilities just confirms that we have apparently learned nothing from the worst offshore oil spill in our nation’s history,” said Michael Conathan, CAP’s Director of Ocean Policy in a statement to National Journal. “As tragic as the Deepwater Horizon disaster was, we must recognize that it occurred in relatively benign environmental conditions. That will not be the case with any spill in the Arctic.”

Shell plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea through October 31st — for a snapshot of the actual worst-case scenario they should be prepared for at this time of year, one only needs to look to the hurricane-force storm, with 35-foot waves and 100mph winds, currently churning toward the Alaskan coast. While the worst of the unprecedented storm is projected to target the Bering Sea, coastal residents along the Bering and Chukchi seas were urged to “not delay in taking needed precautions for this unusually severe and potentially life-threatening storm.”

While this plan would allow up to five additional years to develop adequate Arctic response capabilities, the Interior Department has not shown the same prudence in permitting Shell’s proposed drilling activity in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas under leases purchased earlier. Even though US Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp recently told Congress that the US was not prepared to respond to an oil spill in Arctic waters, and lacking any proven method for responding to an oil spill in the region, BOEMRE conditionally approved Shell’s exploration plan for the Beaufort Sea in August.

Meanwhile, continuing to push for expanding drilling in the gulf seems to ignore a report released by Salazar’s own agency earlier this year which found “more than 70 percent of the tens of millions of offshore acres under lease are inactive, neither producing nor currently subject to approved or pending exploration or development plans. This includes almost 24 million inactive leased acres in the Gulf of Mexico.” Rather than investing BOEM’s already strained resources in permitting new areas, oil companies should first use the leases they already have.

The public now has 90 days to weigh in on the draft environmental impact statement and the proposed lease program, before the Interior Department can issue a final environmental impact statement and proposed final program. After another 60 days of review before Congress, the government could finalize the OCS leasing plan.

— Kiley Kroh is Associate Director of Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress. CAP Intern Emma Huvos contributed to this report.