In the next 30 days, the Obama administration will decide on an oil industry request to drill new wells in Alaska's Beaufort Sea. If approved, these would be the first exploration wells drilled in America's extreme, remote and fragile Arctic Ocean since the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers and spilled almost 5 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. It is also the first in a series of critical decisions the administration is expected to make in coming months on whether to expand Arctic offshore drilling even further.
This Pew Environment Group video highlights what's at stake.
America's Arctic Ocean is a national treasure. It is central to the diet and culture of indigenous communities who have practiced a subsistence way of life for thousands of years. Its ice-covered waters support bowhead whales, Pacific walruses, polar bears and other marine mammals found nowhere else in the nation. Its brief summers draw millions of migratory birds to feed and breed.
Even a moderate oil spill could devastate fragile food webs and put this extraordinary ecosystem at risk.
Drilling for oil is a dangerous enterprise even in temperate climates, as last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster showed. Worldwide, a major well blowout has occurred almost every year since the mid-1970s due to human error or aging infrastructure, according to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Make no mistake, accidents continue to happen:
In June of this year, a drilling rig off the shore of northeastern China was reported to have been spewing oil for weeks without notifying fishermen, local residents or environmental groups. The oil spread over 320 square miles.
Leaks from oil drilling platforms in the North Sea occurred at the rate of one a week in 2009 and 2010, according to documents obtained by the (U.K.) Guardian. The Guardianstory pointed out that the largely unpublicized spills undermined the British government's credibility in supporting oil industry plans to expand drilling in the Arctic Ocean off the shore of Greenland.
Such incidents should make us all ask: Are we really ready to drill in the extreme and remote U.S. Arctic Ocean? And do we have adequate science to help safeguard the region's fragile marine ecosystem?
Before allowing drilling to expand, we need proven spill response capability and a comprehensive science-based management plan that includes local knowledge and protections for ecologically important habitats. There is too much at risk to take chances in our Arctic Ocean.