08/06/2012 09:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Recent Mishaps Raise Doubts About Arctic Drilling Safety

Oil industry plans to drill exploratory wells in America's Arctic Ocean got off to an inauspicious start recently, when a Shell Oil Co. drilling ship slipped anchor and drifted perilously close to the beach at Alaska's Dutch Harbor. A tugboat pulled the massive rig back into place, and the U.S. Coast Guard is investigating.

The mishap -- along with a series of other troubling setbacks -- raises a question that some of us have been asking for the past year: Are we really ready to drill in such a remote and risky setting?

Arctic conditions are among the most extreme on Earth, including hurricane-force winds, high seas, impenetrable fog, and shifting sea ice. Preventing an accident in such conditions is going to be far more challenging than anchoring a rig in the 35-mph winds and 4-foot seas reported in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, during the recent incident. If there is a spill in the Arctic, just getting people and equipment to such a remote location will be daunting: Dutch Harbor, 1,000 miles south of the proposed drilling site, is the nearest major port. And even then, there is no proven method of cleaning up oil in broken ice.

Fears of an oil spill have been countered by promises of robust prevention and cleanup efforts, as part of a bid to drill up to 10 exploratory wells this summer and next. But recent troubles beyond the near-grounding incident do not inspire confidence.

For instance, the Coast Guard delayed certifying the effectiveness and safety of such basic equipment as an oil-containment barge. Even at this late date, the Coast Guard has had to insist on fixes to the barge's electrical, piping, and fire-protection systems.

More worrisome still was a request that the Coast Guard lower the structural standards it had originally approved for the barge aptly named Arctic Challenger, from being able to withstand a "100-year storm" to a 10-year storm. If ever there was a place where preparing for the worst is prudent, it's the Arctic.

Similarly, the federal government was asked to consider relaxing the drilling rig's air emission requirements because not all of them can be met.

These last-minute changes are why we need Arctic-specific standards that are written into regulations, not negotiated on an ad hoc basis and subject to change from project to project or well to well. We need rules backed up by laws that will be in effect longer than one drilling season. And we need measures that can stand up to tough Arctic conditions such as this year's unusually thick sea ice, which is wreaking havoc on drilling schedules and showing how unpredictable this region can be.

The recent near-grounding is a jolting reminder of just what's at stake. The Arctic Ocean is home to bowhead whales, walruses, polar bears, and other marine mammals found nowhere else in America's waters, as well as to millions of migratory birds. This unique ecosystem is central to the diet and culture of indigenous communities that have depended on its bounty for thousands of years.

We need the toughest standards to ensure that, if development takes place, this vital habitat and vibrant culture are safe from oil spills and other harmful impacts. But judging from the failures of planning and execution seen to date, we're not there yet.

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