Wedged between Alaska and Siberia, the Chukchi Sea is one of the most productive ocean ecosystems in the world. Its vast shallow sea floor and ice cover provide rich habitat for many species, including walrus, whales, polar bears and millions of seabirds. In winter, the Chukchi is a foreboding place, dominated by moving packs of sea ice, extreme storms, sub-zero temperatures and darkness.
Even the short Arctic summer brings temperatures in the 40s, gale-force winds, weeklong storms and heavy blankets of fog nearly one-third of the time.
Despite such challenges, the Obama administration recently gave the green light for industry to drill exploratory oil and gas wells in the Chukchi and neighboring Beaufort Sea next summer. Trying to extract these resources poses huge risks.
The ever-present danger of oil spills is one of the biggest concerns. People make mistakes, equipment fails. Remote locations, harsh conditions and technological limitations exacerbate the risks of offshore drilling in the U.S. Arctic.
One week in December, bad weather stymied the cleanup of two separate land-based spills on Alaska's North Slope. An oil rig blowout in the relatively warm, calm waters of the Timor Sea off Australia's north coast several months ago spewed oil for 10 weeks until the company finally capped it. An incident like that in the Chukchi or Beaufort seas would be disastrous. If the industry cannot adequately respond to spills on land or in warm waters, the public has little assurance it can cope with broken ice, darkness and high winds.
Some oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea lie more than 100 miles offshore. Docks large enough to manage cleanup vessels aren't available on nearby shores. If a catastrophic spill occurred, response boats and equipment would likely have to be brought from 400 miles away.
Under the best circumstances, removing oil from the sea is extremely challenging -- only about 5 percent of the oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was ever recovered.
As John Calder, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Arctic Research division, noted, "Oil spills are especially dangerous in the Arctic because its cold and heavily season-dependent ecosystems take a long time to recover. Besides, it is very difficult to remove the damage from oil spills in remote and cold regions, especially in parts of the ocean where there is ice."
The federal government's Minerals Management Service and the oil industry have put considerable time and money into improving spill cleanup options for the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
But their most promising solution -- to concentrate oil in open areas between ice sheets and attempt to burn it -- is flawed.
Operating boats in moving ice is challenging and oil can only be ignited in such conditions for a few days. Worse still, collecting oil in the open areas of sea ice, called polynyas, would mean exposing the most biologically active part of the Arctic Ocean ecosystem to a toxic substance. Polynyas are full of microorganisms, the base of the food web. Marine mammals -- seals, walruses and whales -- poke their heads through these openings in the ice to breathe. An oil slick would disrupt the ecological balance.
Recent oil industry studies claiming that ice would make oil containment easier don't address basic concerns. The studies were conducted in the Barents Sea under narrowly defined conditions not including the moving or broken ice prevalent in the Arctic. While the reports provided a good start on researching the problems and possible cleanup technologies, they failed to answer pressing questions about industrial development in one of Earth's most fragile and inhospitable regions.
Before approving new lease sales and new drilling, the federal government must look hard at the deficiencies in oil spill response capabilities in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Thus far, only incomplete plans have been submitted. What is needed instead is a transparent, independent, peer-reviewed oil-spill risk assessment. The nation must have clear answers -- and understand what is at stake before it risks serious harm.