02:00 PM

Feds ignore risks and green light Shell drilling in Arctic Ocean

Agency continues to rubber-stamp dangerous offshore drilling; Scientists agree more data needed to understand the effects of oil development

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (08/04/2011) -

The U.S. Department of the Interior took a dangerous and disappointing leap towards drilling in the remote and fragile waters of America’s Arctic Ocean today. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) approved a plan by Shell Oil to conduct the first drilling in the harsh and remote Arctic Ocean since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Under this plan, Shell would start drilling in the Beaufort Sea in summer 2012.

Shell’s drilling risks a major oil spill, and neither Shell nor the government could respond adequately to such a catastrophe. It risks harming the endangered bowhead whale, a species central to Alaska Native subsistence traditions. Today’s decision to rubber-stamp Shell’s drilling ignores many of the lessons of the Gulf tragedy and the recommendations of government scientists and puts the Arctic Ocean and its coastal communities at great risk.  

BOEMRE approval of Shell’s drilling plan is silent as to the agency’s assessment of Shell’s oil spill plan.  BOEMRE should not have approved Shell’s drilling plan without an adequate, approved oil spill plan demonstrating Shell’s ability to cleanup an oil spill in the Arctic’s icy waters. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the National Oil Spill Commission identified “the failure to plan effectively for a large-scale, difficult-to-contain spill” in the Arctic as one of the “three critical issues or gaps in the government’s existing response capacity.” As Commandant Admiral Robert Papp admitted to members of Congress last week, the federal government currently has “zero” spill response capability in the Arctic. Today BOEMRE ignored these concerns and approved Shell’s drilling despite an oil spill plan that:

•         Assumes that Shell can recover an unprecedented 95 percent of oil spilled in Arctic water using mechanical containment and recovery efforts (like booms and skimmers), despite the fact that such efforts only recovered 8 percent of oil after the Exxon Valdez spill, and only 5 percent of oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill;
•         Ignores the fact that the most recent oil spill response drill in the Beaufort Sea described mechanical cleanup efforts in icy conditions as a “failure;” a video of this drill obtained by Oceana shows how ineffective mechanical recovery efforts are in Arctic waters; and,
•         Only plans for a “worst case” spill in relatively warm and ice-free August conditions despite the fact that Shell wants to drill through October, when ice, darkness and bad weather prevail.

Additionally, BOEMRE’s approval of Shell’s drilling plan does not resolve the potential for other significant impacts to the Arctic environment. In late June, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a comprehensive assessment of existing scientific data on the effects of oil and gas development in America’s Arctic Ocean.  The USGS report reinforces what scientists inside and outside the government have been saying for years—we need a basic understanding of the Arctic Ocean ecosystem before we can drill there. What we do know is that Shell’s planned drilling is directly in the fall migration path of endangered bowhead whales and could block them from reaching an important feeding and resting area. Shell estimates close to 5,600 migrating bowhead whales, almost half the population, could be exposed to sound and disturbance from the drilling and icebreaking that could cause them to change their behavior and avoid the feeding area. This could harm the population, particularly mothers and young calves, and could affect Alaska Native communities that rely on the bowhead whale and other species to sustain their subsistence way of life.

“Just this June, the USGS reported gaping holes in our understanding of the Arctic Ocean, yet the administration ignores these realities by declaring that offshore drilling would have no significant impact on this fragile marine environment,” said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “By putting Shell one step closer to dangerously risky drilling, the administration puts the wildlife and people that depend on the fragile Arctic ecosystem on thin ice.”  


Read the full release and see what other groups are saying about the administration’s risky decision to give Shell the green light on drilling.

See how offshore drilling threatens the Arctic's fragile marine environment



Caitlin Leutwiler, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3226
Holly Harris, Earthjustice, (907) 500-7133
Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity, (907) 274-1110
Carole Holley, Pacific Environment, (907) 277-1029
Timothy McHugh, Ocean Conservancy, (202) 351-0492
Bob Keefe, Natural Resources Defense Council, (202) 289-2373
Lois Epstein, The Wilderness Society, (907) 748-0448
Virginia Cramer, Sierra Club, (804) 519-8449
Robert Thompson, REDOIL (907) 640-6119
Susan Murray, Oceana, (907) 586-4050
Pamela Miller, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, (907) 452-5021, x24
Emilie Surrusco, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 544-5205
Matt Farrauto, World Wildlife Fund, (202) 660-3136

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org.