Arctic Drilling: 6 months is not enough

My colleague Chuck Clusen posted a blog yesterday on the many reasons why offshore drilling in Alaska’s Arctic is a terrible idea. Today we learned that President has postponed drilling there for 6 months, pending the issuance of a report by the newly created Presidential commission on the Gulf disaster.  Given the huge uncertainties and many challenges posed by the Arctic’s poorly understood but unforgiving marine environment, this doesn’t come close to being enough of a delay. 

The Arctic Ocean is among the least studied areas on the planet. Basic biological information is lacking for many species, and our understanding of ecological relationships and how they are changing as the ice melts and the ocean warms is rudimentary at best.  The dearth of scientific information led Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to ban commercial fishing in federal Arctic waters last August.  The ban, supported by fishermen in Alaska, will remain in effect until researchers gather sufficient information on fish and the Arctic marine environment to prevent adverse impacts of commercial fishing.

In contrast, until today it has been full steam ahead with oil development, in the same poorly understood, highly fragile environment.  How is it that Interior Secretary Salazar seems to know enough to allow potentially catastrophic oil development, but Secretary Locke doesn’t think commercial fishing can be safely done given the information available?   

It doesn’t compute.

Back in September, NOAA sharply criticized Interior’s analysis of the consequences of drilling in the Arctic,  and expressed serious concerns about the potential impact of oil development on fisheries, marine habitats and coastal communities.  It accused DOI of “greatly understating” the challenges posed by Arctic conditions to effective response, and pointed to several recent studies highlighting the lack of preparedness. 

President Obama needs to put the Arctic off-limits to offshore oil unless and until we can be assured it can be done safely and in a way that will not further damage an environment already under extreme stress.  We cannot do that until we have a better grip on what happened in the Gulf, on whether it is possible to respond to an oil spill offshore under the challenging conditions of the Arctic, and until we have a much better understanding of the ecology, species and sensitivities of the Arctic marine environment.  It will take years – five years at least -- to fill these gaps.