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Shell Game

The Department of the Interior says there’s a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill in the Arctic—and it’s willing to take that chance.

The Department of the Interior reported last week that drilling in the remote Chukchi Sea in the Arctic would likely cause a major oil spill, which could kill polar bears and ringed seal pups, as well as threaten populations of loons, Pacific brant, murres, puffins, and bowhead whales. There would probably also be hundreds of additional smaller oil spills. Therefore, the department concluded, we ought to go forward with drilling.

There are no typos in that paragraph. No words are missing. The Department of the Interior thinks a 75 percent chance of a major spill—one of more than 1,000 barrels of oil—that would threaten the very existence of multiple species represents a “reasonable balance” between environmental and energy demands.

Last week's report was the department’s third swing at a complete environmental-impact statement for drilling in the Chukchi. In 2008, the Bush administration sold drilling rights there to Royal Dutch Shell. Since then, the Department of the Interior has written two shoddy environmental assessments that have been rejected twice by federal courts following legal challenges by environmental groups, including NRDC (disclosure).

The mistakes in the assessments have been shocking. In the first report, for example, the department neglected to consider the impacts of gas drilling, even though it sold gas drilling rights along with oil. In the second report, analysts underestimated how much oil would be extracted by a factor of four. Since environmental-impact models are based on the volume of oil production, lowballing the oil understates the likelihood of environmental damage.

The new report has yet more flaws. The department claims to have reviewed more than 100,000 public comments in two months—which would be an impressive achievement, if true. More importantly, the report does not fully evaluate how extracting and combusting four billion barrels of oil might impact the climate. This omission contradicts the administration’s recent proposal to consider climate change in all federal energy decisions.

But let’s get back to that headline number: a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill. It’s not entirely clear why the department thinks that’s a worthwhile risk, since the report is written in government-speak, but allow me to do some informed speculating.

Ryan Kingsbery, USGS

One possibility is that the department doesn’t believe Shell can make the project viable. Drilling in the Chukchi Sea will be logistically nightmarish. If Shell finds oil, it will have to build platforms to withstand sea ice, then lay hundreds of miles of pipeline to the coast and more to the Trans-Alaska pipeline. If the company never produces oil, it won’t spill oil. This would be a silly assumption, though, since oil companies don’t pay billions of dollars for nothing.

The department’s thinking might also rely on the fact that the lease excludes a 25-mile-wide stretch of water next to the shore—the most “environmentally sensitive” part of the sea, according to Interior. In the spring, that ice-covered corridor melts, allowing many sea mammals to migrate through. It is a vital area, but it’s certainly not the only environmentally sensitive portion of the Chukchi Sea. According to Erik Grafe, a senior attorney who specializes in Arctic protection for the nonprofit Earthjustice, we still don’t fully understand the Chukchi ecosystem. When scientists began their research in the region, the coast was simply the most obvious starting point. More importantly, siting the drills outside that lane won’t necessarily protect it from a spill.

“Oil is going to flow where it’s going to flow,” he says. “It will not respect special protected area boundaries, especially in the Arctic, where there is no way to clean it up.”

Most oil cleanup tools, like skimmers, don’t work among big chunks of floating ice. The Arctic is also stormy, foggy, and dark much of the year, which makes assessing a spill and operating remediation equipment more difficult. There also aren’t enough basic amenities to conduct a cleanup, like ports, airports, and hotels to house workers. (Shell knows the dangers of the Arctic better than most companies—the climate has destroyed several of the oil giant’s most expensive toys.)

Nevertheless, the Department of the Interior wants to roll the dice. In the next few days, the environmental-impact assessment will appear in the Federal Register, allowing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to sign off on the decision next month. Exploration could begin as early as this summer.

Unless, of course, there’s another successful lawsuit against the department. On behalf of the Chukchi Sea and its many inhabitants, let’s hope three strikes means you’re out.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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