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Arctic oil drilling looks increasingly risky

Published: January 22, 2013 | 9:11 am
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The Arctic Ocean is believed to hold vast reserves of oil and gas, worth trillions of dollars. But can they be safely extracted and shipped?

The Arctic Ocean is believed to hold vast reserves of oil and gas, worth trillions of dollars. But can they be safely extracted and shipped?

Given recent events, experts are increasingly skeptical. The challenges posed by extreme weather and sea conditions of the far north appear – at least for now – to be beyond the abilities of the oil company seeking to drill there.

Two of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers – former Environmental Protection Agency head Carol Browner and John Podesta, who headed the president’s 2009 transition team – are saying they don’t see any way to safely drill for oil in the Arctic. Their concerns are echoed by departing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as well as a key insurance market, Lloyd’s of London, and the French oil company Total.

The Obama administration has been open to the prospect of Arctic oil drilling, issuing permits to Royal Dutch Shell to explore. Despite investing about $5 billion in preparations for drilling, Shell has encountered problem after problem.

Last summer, the company lost control of one of its two drilling rigs in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. It came perilously close to shore. More recently, the other rig broke loose of its cables as it was being towed to Seattle and beached on an island in the Gulf of Alaska.

Luckily no oil was spilled. But if there had been, containment and cleanup would have been a nightmare. Shell’s containment dome – an emergency device to stop a blowout – failed tests in the much calmer waters of Puget Sound. And in assessing the obstacles faced in drilling offshore in the Arctic, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found Shell’s plans lacking.

If a spill occurred that was even a fraction of the size of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, responders would be hard-pressed to get to the site due to the lack of roads and ports. There’s no place for hundreds, perhaps thousands of responders to be housed. And little research has been done on how best to clean up spilled oil in the frigid, turbulent waters of the Arctic.

Other oil companies are moving ahead with plans to drill in non-U.S. waters of the Arctic, although France’s Total said it would not due to the risk of disaster and threat to the environment. The administration can’t control what goes on elsewhere, but it must do all it can to protect American waters.

Shell must be able to prove that it can drill safely in a way that protects worker health and the environment. If it can’t adequately respond to a worst-case scenario – such as a blowout in the middle of an Arctic storm – then it’s too great of a risk until more is known about preventing and dealing with a devastating spill.

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