No need to worry, though: Shell swears it's dealing with the possibility of such a disaster, even to the point of bringing in dogs "to detect oil spills beneath snow and ice." No joke. "When it comes to drilling for oil in the harsh and unpredictable Arctic," the Guardian reported in March, "Shell has gone to the dogs, it seems. A dachshund and two border collies to be specific."
The Obama administration has been no less reassuring. There will be a genuine federal inspector on board those drill ships 24/7. And whether you're listening to the oil company or our government, you should just know that it's all a beautiful dream, nothing more. When a spill happens, and it's minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind's howling at 65 miles per hour, and sea ice is all around you and moving, the idea that a highly trained dachshund or federal inspector will be able to do a thing is pure fantasy. Believe me, I've been there under those conditions and if the worst occurs, this won't be a repeat of BP in the Gulf of Mexico (bad as that was). Help will not be available.
Hand Shell this for honesty: the company has admitted that, if a spill were to happen late in the summer drilling season (of course it won't!), they will simply have to leave the spilled oil "in place" for nine months to do its damnedest. The following summer they will theoretically deal with what's left of the spill, and -- though they don't say this -- the possibility of a dead or dying sea.
The U.S. National Environmental Policy Act requires that the government must do an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) if there is reason to believe that a proposed activity will significantly affect the quality of the human environment. The Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement avoided the time consuming EIS process, however, issuing instead what is called a "Finding of No Significant Impact."
In late June, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, "I believe there will not be an oil spill" from Shell's Arctic drilling, and proceeded full speed ahead. Know this: in 2011 alone in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, Shell reported 63 "operational spills" due to equipment failure. That happened in a tropical environment.
Oil companies must have an approved spill-response plan before drilling can proceed. But Shell's government-rubber-stamped plan turns out to be full of holes, including the claim that, should a spill occur, they will be able to recover 90% of all spilled oil. (In the cases of both the Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon disasters less than 10% was recovered.) In fact, it's a claim from which the company is already backtracking. On July 10th, 10 environmental organizations, including the Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), filed a lawsuit challenging Shell's spill-response plans in an attempt to stop this summer's drilling.
In addition, Shell's 37-year-old 294-foot barge, the Arctic Challenger, a necessity for its clean-up plan, is still awaiting final certification from the U.S. Coast Guard. Reporting on the failure to receive it so far, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that "[e]ngineers from the oil company say it's no longer appropriate to require them to meet the rigorous weather standards originally proposed." Unfortunately, there couldn't be anything more basic to drilling in the Arctic than its fearsome weather. If you can't hack that -- and no oil company can -- you shouldn't be sending your drill ships northward.
And a massive spill or a series of smaller ones is hardly the only danger to one of the more fragile environments left on the planet. The seismic testing that precedes any drilling and the actual drilling operations bring "lots of noise" to the region. This could be very harmful to the bowhead whales, which use sound to navigate through sea ice in darkness. Seismic testing represents, as Peter Matthiessen wrote in 2007, following a trip we took together along the Arctic coast of Alaska, "the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment I can imagine short of naval warfare."
In addition, Shell's drill ships will put significant amounts of toxic substances into the Arctic air each year, including an estimated 336 tons of nitrogen oxides and up to 28 tons of PM2.5 -- fine particles that include dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. These are harmful to human health and will degrade the Arctic's clean atmosphere.
Despite opposition from indigenous IÃ±upiat communities, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nonetheless approved air quality permits for the ships in January. On June 28th, however, Shell admitted that the Noble Discoverer "cannot meet the [EPA's] requirements for emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia" and asked the agency to loosen air quality rules for Arctic drilling.
Add to this one more thing: even before Shell's drilling begins, or there can be any assessment of it, the Obama administration is already planning to open up more Arctic waters to offshore drilling in the years to come. Think of this -- and of the possible large-scale, irremediable pollution of the Arctic's watery landscape -- as the canary in the coalmine when it comes to the oceans of the world. Especially now, when global warming is melting northern ice and opening the way for energy corporations backed by governments to train their sights on those waters and their energy riches.
Not Just the Arctic
Here's the simplest fact: we are killing our oceans. Rapidly. Already, the massive atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases from the burning of non-Arctic fossil fuels has, scientists believe, caused a rise in sea surface temperature of 1 degree Centigrade over the past 140 years. This may not seem impressive, but much of this increase has occurred during the past few decades. As a result, scientists again believe, there has been a potentially catastrophic 40% decline, largely since 1950, in the phytoplankton that support the whole marine food chain. Headlines from media reports on this decline catch the grim possibilities in the situation: "The Dead Sea," "Are Our Oceans Dying?"
In addition, the oceans absorb about 25% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we put in the atmosphere and this has made their waters abnormally acidic, transforming coral reefs into graveyards. Earlier this year, we learned that "the current acidification is potentially unparalleled in at least the last 300 million years of Earth history, and raises the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change." This July, Jane Lubchenco, chief of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, referred to such ocean acidification as climate change's "equally evil twin."
Similarly, the rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is already proving catastrophic for a host of species, including narwhals, polar bears, walruses, seals, and sea birds. And you have undoubtedly heard about the massive expanses of garbage, especially plastic, now clotting our oceans. Chris Jordan's powerful photographs of dead albatrosses at Midway Atoll, their bellies full of plastic, catch what this can mean for marine life. And then there's the increasing industrial overfishing of all waters, which is threatening to decimate fish populations globally.
And keep in mind, that's only so far. Drilling for what Michael Klare calls "tough oil" or "extreme energy" in a range of perilous locations only ensures the further degradation of the oceans. In addition to the possible opening up of the Arctic Ocean, there has been an expansion of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling in "Iceberg Alley" near Newfoundland, deep-offshore drilling in the Brazillian "pre-salt" fields of the Atlantic Ocean, and an increase in offshore drilling in West Africa and Asia.