02/01/2011 11:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Exxon-Valdez to Deepwater Horizon: Have We Learned Enough to Expand Arctic Drilling?

Congress recently held its first hearings to consider the important and far-reaching recommendations of President Obama's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Along with questions about what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon and how to help the Gulf recover, there was discussion of how quickly oil companies could get back to drilling -- as well as a discussion about new development in the Arctic Ocean off the northern coast of Alaska, where Shell wants to commence exploratory drilling this summer.

In 1989, I was Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation. When the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef, it was my job to oversee the oil spill response for the state and enforce cleanup standards. Back then, I saw oil spreading over Prince William Sound; last summer I watched it gush into the Gulf of Mexico. If we fail to act on the lessons learned from these tragedies, I could soon find myself in Alaska's Arctic, watching another disaster unfold.

The lessons of the BP disaster, and the work undertaken by the independent Commission, must be carefully considered before Shell's plans in the Arctic are allowed to move forward. The Arctic is home to Alaska Natives who depend on a healthy ocean to support their subsistence way of life. Arctic waters support an array of wildlife, including walrus, seals, whales, polar bears, seabirds, shorebirds, waterfowl, and fish. An oil spill in the Arctic Ocean would threaten human and wildlife communities alike. As the Commission points out, the icy waters of the Arctic pose severe challenges to oil and gas operations, and there are serious questions about oil spill response, containment, and search and rescue capabilities in the region.

It is vital that the administration and Congress follow the Commission's recommendations to help ensure we never see an oil disaster play out in vulnerable Arctic waters. The following findings of the Commission are particularly important:

  • There are systemic problems with the offshore oil and gas process: The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was not an isolated incident. System-wide fixes are needed to address serious shortcomings in offshore drilling policies, decision-making processes, and disaster response.
  • The Arctic is a special case: The Commission recognized that the Arctic poses unique challenges and risks to oil and gas operators: The "remoteness and weather of the Arctic frontier create special challenges in the event of an oil spill," and as a result, spill response methods from more temperate regions "cannot simply be transferred to the Arctic." The Commission acknowledged that exploration and development of oil and gas resources in the Arctic, if it goes forward, will require "the utmost care."
  • The Arctic requires unique safety guidelines: The Commission recommends that operators in certain areas, including "frontier or high-risk areas--such as the Arctic"--be required to "develop a comprehensive safety case" as part of their exploration and production plans. The Commission also calls for "the development and adoption of shared international standards, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic."
  • More baseline science research is needed in the Arctic: The Commission noted that geological, biological and environmental information for the Arctic is not well developed: "[g]ood information exists for only a few species, and even for those, just for certain times of the year or in certain areas." The Commission concluded that "[s]cientific understanding of environmental conditions in sensitive environments... in areas proposed for more drilling, such as the Arctic, is inadequate."
  • Science should guide decision-making: The Commission recommended an Arctic research program to promote informed decision-making on oil and gas activities and to measure and monitor impacts of oil and gas development on Arctic ecological resources. Importantly, the Commission noted that "[e]xpanded coordination and cooperation on scientific research efforts with NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other agencies with relevant expertise can improve the quality of science available for" decisions about offshore oil and gas activities.
  • More action is needed before the Department of the Interior decides whether drilling is appropriate in particular areas of the Arctic. Specifically, the Commission called on Interior to ensure that industry oil spill response plans are adequate; recommended that industry and the Coast Guard coordinate to implement increased response and rescue capacity in the Arctic; and urged Congress to support Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic.

While we work to rebuild and restore in the Gulf of Mexico, we still have a chance to get it right in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Congress and the administration should heed the Commission's findings on offshore drilling in the Arctic. Decisions about whether, when, where, and how to authorize oil and gas activities in the Arctic Ocean must be based on sound scientific information, thoughtful planning, and a demonstrably effective response and rescue capability.