02:00 PM

Obama administration rubber stamps Shell’s drilling plans for the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea

WASHINGTON (12/16/2011) -

In the latest in a series of reckless decisions about America’s Arctic Ocean, the Obama administration today gave Royal Dutch Shell the green light to drill in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea beginning next summer - despite the fact that there is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s extreme conditions and there is significant dearth of scientific information, making it impossible to understand the impacts of Shell’s activities.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced conditional approval of Shell’s plan to drill six exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 and 2013. This decision follows on the heels of the Obama administration’s controversial approval of exploratory drilling in the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea, also beginning in the summer of 2012. However, before Shell can actually begin drilling the administration still must approve a series of permits – including a final APD or “application for permit to drill.”

The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, pervasive sea ice, frigid temperatures and months-long darkness.  There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in these extreme conditions. What’s more, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure to provide the support and equipment needed for a spill. Administration officials themselves have expressed concerns about spill response in the Arctic. Admiral Robert Papp, the top officer at the U.S. Coast Guard, recently told Congress that if the Deepwater Horizon disaster was “to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we’d have nothing. We’re starting from ground zero today.”

The last public spill drill in the Arctic – that tested booms and skimmers and other conventional methods of oil spill cleanup in partial sea ice conditions in 2000 – was deemed a failure.
In addition, scientists, courts, communities, and, most recently, the U.S. Geological Survey, have identified basic missing scientific information that makes it impossible to fully and fairly evaluate Shell’s plans.

Since the BP Gulf tragedy in 2010, the federal government instituted a capping and containment requirement for well blowouts that requires containment be in place within 15 days.  Shell has not built or tested under Arctic conditions such a structure.   

Alaska Native communities have existed in the Arctic for thousands of years, alongside myriad species of wildlife including polar bears, bowhead whales, walrus, ice seals and hundreds of species of birds. An oil spill in these Arctic waters would destroy vital habitat for this wildlife as well as the subsistence lifestyle that sustains the Inupiat people of Alaska’s Arctic coast.

“In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama promised a new way of making decisions about drilling in this country. Approving Shell’s plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea next summer, with no viable method to clean up an oil spill and limited information about the Arctic’s fragile marine environment, fails to meet these promises,” said Cindy Shogan, Executive Director of Alaska Wilderness League. “Unless President Obama chooses to set himself up to be left with the next major oil spill disaster on his hands, he must deny Shell’s final permits to drill and ensure that no drilling will occur in the Arctic Ocean without the safeguards Americans expect.”

“BOEM has stuck its head in the sand and rubber stamped Shell’s plan without any thoughtful review or apparent care for our oceans,” said Michael LeVine, Pacific Senior Counsel for Oceana.  “This approval makes a mockery of Secretary Salazar’s stated commitments to science, the legal obligation to be prepared for a spill, and the basic idea of government as stewards of public resources.  Every commission, committee, and review other than those prepared by BOEM and the oil industry has shown that we are not ready to drill in the Chukchi Sea.”

“It’s a sure sign that our thirst for oil has clouded our ability to reason when we start thinking it’s a good idea to drill for oil in the harshest environment on earth,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska Director for Center for Biological Diversity. “Rather than looking for the next risky fossil fuel fix, the Obama administration should be working to give Americans a clean energy future. A decision to drill in the Arctic is a decision to destroy it.”

“While it is really clear that cleanup technologies are not adequate to mitigate a spill, we actually have no idea of the extent of the impacts on marine life from noise generated by the industry,” said Michael Stocker, Director of Ocean Conservation Research. “Seismic air gun surveys, underwater telemetry, thruster stabilized exploratory platforms, shipping and transport noise, and seafloor stationed processing equipment will all significantly transform the noise profile of an environment that heretofore has only heard biological and natural sounds.”

“Royal Dutch Shell is still cleaning up from its disastrous oil spill in the North Sea over the summer. And now the Obama administration wants to green light this company to drill in the Arctic, where we have neither the technology, the equipment nor the wherewithal to respond to an oil spill in subzero temperatures and icy water?” said Chuck Clusen, Director, National Parks and Alaska Projects, Natural Resources Defense Council. “This decision invites yet another disaster of epic proportions.”

“The risk to the fragile Arctic area and Alaska communities is clear. Spill prevention, containment and response systems are not equipped to work in challenging Arctic conditions – in short, when there is a spill in the Arctic, we will not be able to clean it up, said Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Program Director. "Smarter transportation choices, not dangerous drilling plans, are what we should be pushing forward."

“It’s disappointing that the Obama administration continues to press forward on Arctic drilling when we don’t yet have the science to make smart decisions on whether, where, when and how to drill in the Chukchi Sea,” said Andrew Hartsig, Director of Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program. “The Arctic is one of the most beautiful places on Earth—and one of the most forbidding and vulnerable. What would happen if a major spill occurred? We haven’t ensured that important subsistence and ecological areas will be adequately protected, and don’t have the capacity to respond effectively. Until we do, the administration should not approve drilling in the Chukchi Sea.”

“The Obama administration is asking the public to accept Arctic Ocean drilling without necessary protections, just as the Bush Administration did.  At present, the public is not confident that Shell or any other operator will protect the Arctic Ocean merely by knowing that BOEM and BSEE have approved all existing permit requirements,” said Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic Program Director for The Wilderness Society who also serves on a federal advisory committee for BSEE.

“Until there is a proven method to clean up an oil spill and safeguards in place, oil companies should not be allowed to drill in the Arctic Ocean,” said Hans Cole, Environmental Grants Manager for Patagonia, Inc.

“If you liked the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, you will love Shell’s plan for Alaska,” said Mike Daulton, Vice President of Government Relations, National Audubon Society. “Shell has never demonstrated the ability to effectively clean up a large oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. In addition to the usual problems handling a major spill, Alaska has huge ocean waves, gale force winds and widespread sea ice. A major oil spill in Alaska would be Deepwater Horizon meets the Titanic.”

“Oil is earning interest in the ground.  Until there is a proven way to develop it without risk of spill, and until we have ways of using it that do not pollute the atmosphere, we should allow it to gain interest for future generations,” Ben Millstein, Kodiak Island Brewing.

"The field of Soundscape Ecology reveals that human-induced noise has a profound effort on the ability of marine mammals to communicate and thrive in increasingly fragile ocean environments.  The Chukchi Sea must be denied permission to drill before these creatures and their habitat could likely be irreparably altered,” said Kat Krause, Wild Sanctuary.

"There is a profound connection between nature, animal, and human health and well-being. From Polar bears to Phytoplankton, creatures of the Chukchi Sea are worth celebrating. This Arctic Ocean needs scientific, academic, and artistic exploration - not risky exploitation,” said Kat Krause, Arctic Live.

“America’s Arctic Ocean is a pristine and fragile environment. Its importance to the survival of polar bears, bowhead whales and other marine life is too great to hand over to Big Oil given the inadequate assurances of safety,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. “The administration needs a realistic oil spill response and recovery plan before exposing this unique region with its fragile wildlife to an oil disaster we are unlikely to be able to control.”

“Shell’s efforts to begin offshore oil drilling in an area where they lack the capacity to stop or clean up a spill are deeply troubling,” said Alex Taurel, Legislative Representative for the League of Conservation Voters.  “This is the same company that just this year was responsible for the largest oil spill in more than a decade in the UK’s North Sea.  Instead of doubling down on dangerous and expensive sources of energy like oil, we should continue efforts to cut our dependence on oil and spur clean energy.”  


See how offshore drilling threatens wildlife and their marine environments.


Pamela Miller, ALASKA COMMUNITY ACTION ON TOXINS, 907-222-7714
Emilie Surrusco, ALASKA WILDERNESS LEAGUE, 202-544-5205
Nikos Pastos, ALASKA’S BIG VILLAGE NETWORK, 907-764-2561
Sean Gosiewski, ALLIANCE FOR SUSTAINABILITY, 612-331-1099
Katherine Krause, ARCTIC LIVE/WILD SANCTUARY, 707-996-6677
Carol Kasza and Jim Campbell, ARCTIC TREKS, arctictreks@alaska.net
Rebecca Noblin, CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY, 907-274-1110
Nikos Pastos, CENTER FOR WATER ADVOCACY, 907-764-2561
Caitlin Leutwiler, DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE, 202-772-3226
Carol Hoover, EYAK PRESERVATION COUNCIL, carol@redzone.org
Ben Millstein, KODIAK ISLAND BREWING, 907-486-2537
Joe Uehlein, LABOR NETWORK FOR SUSTAINABILITY, joeuehlein@mac.com
Kate Geller, LEAGUE OF CONSERVATION VOTERS, 202-454-4573
Taldi Walter, NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY, 202-600-7971
Michael Levine, OCEANA, 907-723-0136
Andrew Hartsig, OCEAN CONSERVANCY, 907-229-1690
Michael Stoker, OCEAN CONSERVATION RESEARCH, mstocker@ocr.org
Hans Cole, PATAGONIA, INC., 805-667-4652
Rev. Sandra Strauss, PENNSYLVANIA COUNCIL OF CHURCHES, 717-545-4761
Virginia Cramer, SIERRA CLUB, 804-225-9113 x 102
Lois Epstein, THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY, 907-748-0448

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.