The recent grounding of a Shell oil rig near Alaska's Kodiak Island may have been the biggest mishap of the 2012 Arctic drilling season, but it was hardly the only one. This past year the exploration in America's Arctic Ocean has been characterized by one problem after another, including the near grounding of a second rig and safety and engineering concerns that prevented deployment of a promised oil spill containment barge. Taken together, these missteps raise a serious question that goes beyond any single accident or, for that matter, any single oil company: Is the United States ready to drill in such a remote and risky setting?
The most publicized of the season's many incidents was the grounding of the drill rig Kulluk on New Year's Eve in the Gulf of Alaska as it was being towed south through a fierce storm. The towing vessel's engines failed, and the towline broke multiple times in 25-foot seas and 50 mile-per-hour winds.
As luck would have it, the grounding occurred within reach of the largest U.S. Coast Guard station in Alaska. Coast Guard helicopters evacuated the 18 crew members, a multi-agency team of 730 people oversaw efforts to free the grounded rig, and no oil was spilled.
But imagine if this incident had happened near the actual drill sites farther north in Alaska's remote Chukchi and Beaufort seas, where Arctic conditions can be even harsher and distance from help is much greater. Hurricane-force winds, high seas, impenetrable fog, and shifting sea ice are common. The region has no major roads, ports or airports. The Coast Guard station at Kodiak is more than 1,000 miles away, and a response would be daunting.
America's Arctic Ocean is central to the sustenance and culture of indigenous communities that have depended on its bounty for thousands of years. Its ice-covered waters support bowhead whales, Pacific walruses, ice seals, polar bears, and other marine mammals found nowhere else in the United States. Its brief summers draw millions of migratory birds to feed and breed.
To protect this national treasure, the United States needs a comprehensive, science-based management plan that preserves traditional cultural areas and ecologically important habitats. Arctic-specific safety, spill prevention, and response standards must be adopted to stand up to the region's extreme conditions. As the past season showed, those standards aren't in place.