Shell Steps Closer to Arctic Drilling

The disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is apparently quickly forgotten by the nation’s environmental agencies when it comes to approving new drilling. On Sept. 19, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved an air quality permit for a Shell Oil Co. drilling vessel called Noble Discover which Shell plans to use for exploratory wells off Alaska’s northwest coast.

The permit brings the oil company another step closer to offshore drilling in the Arctic, following the Interior Department’s green light in August for Shell to begin exploring offshore drilling there. An article in Rolling Stone notes that the agency found “no evidence” that a major spill there will “significantly affect the quality of the human environment.” For its part, Shell made claims that it would be able to recover, according to the piece, “90% of any oil that hits the water after a Gulf-style blowout.”

Curtis Smith, Shell Alaska spokesperson, was confident that the air quality permit was a sign of drilling to come by July 2012. It was thanks to environmental groups and native Alaskan groups successfully appealing two air permits issued Shell by the EPA in 2010 that the company was not able to drill off Alaska’s Arctic coasts in this year’s ice-free months. But while the EPA’s new permit comes with a cost to the company—it must reduce the air pollutants from its fleet emissions by more than 50% from allowable levels in the 2010 permits—it’s well worth it to Shell which has spent $4 billion on leases in Arctic waters. As detailed in an article on CBS News, “Shell’s current exploration plan calls for drilling up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and two in the Beaufort Sea in 2012 and the same number in 2013.” Between the two bodies of water are an estimated “26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.”

Environmental groups have been sounding the alarm for years about the irreversible damage that offshore drilling could cause in such sensitive habitat. What’s more, the harsh conditions of the Arctic would make cleaning up spills impossible during months like September and October, according to a Canadian report, the very months when Shell plans to drill. “Even in the summer months, hurricane-like storms form 20-foot waves and create conditions that are so harsh that human beings often cannot step outside,” reports the Christian Science Monitor. And no one has yet figured out how to clean up oil on ice.

As Carole Holley, Alaska program co-director with Pacific Environment said in a release when drilling in the Arctic was first approved in August: “The Obama administration continues its policy of selling off the environment and through that, Alaska Native peoples, to the highest bidder. We know that there’s no way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic. The Department of Interior knows it too. Approving Shell’s exploration plan for the Beaufort Sea is a completely irrational decision, driven by industry greed and politicians rather than science and the health of people and the environment.”