Safeguarding the Arctic a Must

Safeguarding the Arctic a Must

Marilyn Heiman responds to Michael Bromwich's blog What More Can Be Done to Ensure Safe Offshore Drilling? on

The Gulf of Mexico disaster should have brought all the stakeholders together to better prevent and respond to future spills, whether in deep water or in frontier areas such as the Arctic Ocean. Immediately after a disaster, it is easier to get reform than it is years later, when complacency begins to set in. Unfortunately, Congress failed to adopt any reforms, so federal agencies have had to do the majority of the work on safety and prevention.

Although the Obama administration has taken steps toward shoring up drilling safety, improvements to oil spill response planning remain untouched. So here we are, two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and with drilling likely to occur this summer in America's Arctic Ocean, and no new response regulations have been adopted.

The extreme, remote and fragile Arctic Ocean is one of the most difficult places on Earth to mount a rescue operation or spill response. The region has no major roads, ports, or airports. The nearest Coast Guard base is more than 1,000 miles away. Hurricane-force winds, subzero temperatures, high seas, shifting sea ice, and long periods of fog and darkness are the norm and could shut down a response altogether.

The Interior Department should work with stakeholders–including industry, government, Native organizations, scientists, and conservation groups—to ensure that strong safety and spill-response standards apply to all companies that plan to drill in the Arctic Ocean. For example:

  • Seasonal restrictions are needed so that operators have finished drilling by the time ice starts to form in October. No proven methods exist to clean up oil in broken ice. The faster a cleanup operation is mounted, the better. Poor weather could impede delivery and response time. Key equipment, such as a well-capping device and a Polar-class relief well rig, need to be stationed in the Arctic region.
  • A long-term, comprehensive science and monitoring program should be developed to better guide decisions about if, where, when, and how drilling can take place safely.
  • Finally, there should be heightened protection of sensitive areas that are important to the marine ecosystem and the Inupiat people who depend on it for their traditional way of life.

To put strong protections in place will require everyone to work collaboratively. That is the only way to help safeguard the Arctic from a disastrous oil spill.