It seems as though any disruption in the Middle East or major spike in gas or oil prices is often followed by a loud call for more drilling in the United States, including in Alaska's Arctic. But the Deepwater Horizon disaster demonstrated what can happen when we plunge ahead without adequate oversight. Now more than ever, we need a process that is thoughtful and the result of rational planning.
Norway's recent problems with cleaning up an oil spill in its icy fjords provided another lesson. In February, a cargo ship ran aground near the country's only marine park and spilled oil from a ruptured tank. There has been minimal coverage of the accident outside of Norway, but it could provide a window into what may lie ahead in Alaska's Arctic Ocean.
Oil in Ice
Simply put, there is no effective way to clean up oil in icy waters. The Norwegian Coast Guard reported that it was virtually impossible to identify how much oil had spilled or how much damage had occurred because much of the oil was trapped in and under the ice. Ice had clogged up the booms used to collect oil, rendering them useless. And this was just from a small spill in calm weather.
Imagine even a moderate-sized oil spill in Alaska's Arctic Ocean. Shifting sea ice, sub-zero temperatures, extended periods of fog and frequent storms with strong winds could shut down spill response altogether. The U.S. Arctic Ocean has no resident Coast Guard vessels; additionally, the nearest air station is 950 air miles away. There are virtually no roads connecting remote villages to each other or to the rest of the state.
The Right Approach
Instead of rushing ahead with new drilling, the Obama administration must keep our nation's long-term energy security in mind by pushing forward with clean energy programs and incentives for electric vehicles. These types of programs will have a long and meaningful impact on our nation's energy usage by significantly reducing the amount of oil we use.
Since the Gulf of Mexico spill, the Obama administration has taken a very careful approach to approving drilling permits, especially for those proposing drilling in challenging environments, such as deep water and the Arctic. If we are to avoid another catastrophic spill, speeding up the permitting process in the absence of adequate spill containment capacity and safety measures is not the right response just because prices are high. We need to be in this for the long-term by ensuring high drilling standards that are designed to prevent accidents. This is particularly important in the Arctic Ocean because -- as the recent Norway spill proves -- countries still are not capable of cleaning up spills in such extreme and fragile places.
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