Obama Administration Allows More Offshore Drilling without More Safeguards for Arctic and Gulf

Less than two years after the BP oil disaster and before Congress has passed one single law to make drilling safer, the Obama Administration has given a green light to expand offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean.

Opening new areas to drilling before proper safeguards have been put in place is a reckless gamble. Oil companies are still using the same kind of blowout preventer that failed on the Deepwater Horizon rig. They are still relying on the same cleanup techniques used in the Exxon Valdez spill 22 years ago.

Plunging ahead before we resolve safety concerns is especially risky in the Arctic—the world’s last wild ocean.

Even Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, noted the challenges of operating in the Arctic—the world’s last wild ocean. “The Arctic is special,” he said. “It is different, and it is an area that has so far been largely unexplored. We know far less about the Arctic than we do about, for example, the Gulf of Mexico. We know there are lots of challenges we face there that we are struggling to figure out.”

It’s hard to imagine we can answer all questions between now and when the lease sales open in 2015.

No one has yet determined how to clean up oil in pack ice, which covers the Arctic eight months out of the year. The Coast Guard possesses only three heavy ice breakers, one of which has been converted to a research vessel, one is slated to be junked, and the other awaits a similar fate in Seattle. Skimmers—the main tool used in the BP spill—have been proven by Canadian researchers to be ineffective even when the water is clear of ice because of choppy conditions.

I served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Our report recommends how to close the response and research gaps in the Arctic, including launching an immediate federal research effort to gather more scientific data about the Arctic Ocean, conducting annual stock assessments of species, and creating an interagency research program to focus on spill response and containment in the Arctic. Until we have more information in hand, the Department of Interior cannot make a sound judgment about whether to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

In an era of acute federal budget constraints we have no guarantee that the work necessary to close these gaps will be completed. And until it is completed, it is not possible to assess what the true risks are to the Arctic environment, or to the native communities that depend on the resources of the Arctic for their survival.

Fragile marine environments and nursery grounds for species on which native communities depend must be identified and protected. We have one chance to protect our last wild ocean. Rushing ahead to approve drilling will not allow those protections to be researched, identified, and adopted.

We only have to look to the Gulf to see what happens when companies rush beyond the limits of knowledge, technology, and government oversight.

Eleven men died in the BP disaster. More than 170 million gallons of Louisiana crude spewed into the water, and 1,053 miles of shoreline got oiled. Gulf Coast fishermen lost $62 million in dockside sales because of the spill, while tourist businesses lost $1.5 billion in earnings. The oyster and shrimp catches are greatly reduced this season. It will take years to determine the ecological damage.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill did an exhaustive review and offered specific recommendations for how to improve the safety of offshore drilling. We know how to get this right. It’s time we put those lessons in place.