Despite Past Oil Spills, Shell Is Given the Go-Ahead for Arctic Drilling
On the heels of a United Nations report release criticizing Shell Oil for “contributing to 50 years of pollution” in the Niger Delta,” U.S. federal officials recently gave the green light to the oil giant to drill even more—this time in the Arctic. As Shell begins an expensive and extensive cleanup in one country, it’s now racing to put at risk one of the most pristine and remote places on Earth.
Shell, along with other major energy companies, has been coveting the Arctic for years. Until now, conservation groups like Earthjustice have stymied drillers by arguing for a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem before we start drilling—a sentiment long echoed by scientists. The Arctic is home to endangered species like the bowhead whale whose fragile populations could be harmed by irresponsible drilling. According to Shell’s own estimates, some 5,600 migrating bowheads could be exposed to sound and disturbance from drilling. The Arctic’s polar bears, seals, birds and fish will also be in the drillers’ path.
Aside from knowing little about the ecosystem, Shell also lacks an adequate oil spill cleanup plan for the Arctic. So did BP when it spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf last summer. Ice, perpetual darkness and subzero temperatures guarantee that an oil spill in the Arctic’s icy waters would be far more difficult to clean up than in the Gulf. In fact, last month Canadian researchers found that “conditions [in the Arctic] can be so bad that no ice cleanup measures are even possible about 20% of the time in June; 40% of the time in August and 65% of the time in October.” Shell plans to start drilling next summer and continue through October.
The company insists it would take full responsibility for cleaning up any spill, but past experience suggests otherwise. According to the UN report on the Nigerian spill, 10 out of 15 sites that Shell claimed were remediated contained pollution levels exceeding government standards.
Though the Interior Department has given Shell the go-ahead, Arctic drilling next summer is far from a done deal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must first approve revised air permits for one of Shell’s Arctic drilling ships. In addition, both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service must certify that wildlife such as polar bears, walruses, whales and seals will be protected before Shell may proceed. The result of those decisions will reflect whether the Obama Administration is willing to allow Shell’s slick track record to spill over into U.S. waters.