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No oil spill, no outrage from Alaskans over Kulluk grounding

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Loren Holmes photo

It is interesting to watch the fallout from the Shell drill rig's grounding on Kodiak Island. On the one hand, the grounding has caught the attention of millions and given those who were already concerned about drilling in the Arctic new fuel for their fire. On the other hand, the fact that the rig did not spill any oil and did not, it appears, cause any significant environmental damage tempers the response of those on the fence.

That's an incredibly frustrating line of logic, but one that has been seen time and again when it comes to dealing with environmental issues. People, it seems, will happily ponder an issue just as long as it stays in the forefront of their view. A boat grounds but doesn't spill any oil and perhaps people think about it for a week. A boat grounds and does spill oil and it is remembered decades later. The often-quoted idea of a wake-up call really doesn't seem to apply to us. In general, we don't wake up unless the worst-case scenario actually plays out and we are, in fact, forced to wake up.

Take, for example, a response issued this week from the British government to a committee report calling for support of a moratorium on Arctic drilling. While the United Kingdom, which is not an Arctic nation but has deep economic ties to the oil industry as well as a close proximity to the Arctic, came out in support of some of the committees recommendations, it stopped short of supporting the moratorium, saying existing efforts to protect the Arctic environment are more likely to be effective than a ban.

No to moratorium

The report called for the moratorium on drilling in the Arctic until spill response techniques are proven to work in the extreme Arctic conditions, a spill response plan is put in place covering the pan-Arctic, stricter financial liability rules for oil and gas operations are introduced and an internationally recognized protected area is established as part of the Arctic.

England backed away from such stances, saying they were outside of its jurisdiction but in many cases saying it was eager to work with organizations such as the Arctic Council, and the United Nations to consider those ideas further.

The Brits are, however, calling Shell back for more questioning after the grounding of the Kulluk. In addition, the European nation called for a reduction in black carbon, and said it would work with the International Maritime Organization to cut emissions of black carbon, which studies have shown speeds the melting of sea ice by making it less reflective.

Another recommendation the report did summarily support was a call for the development of Citizens Advisory Councils in areas where Arctic development could impact locals.

"The government fully recognizes the need for those affected by developments to be able to make their views heard," the British government response stated. "Such contributions help ensure decisions are properly informed by local concerns. We would therefore welcome the use of Citizens Advisory Councils where these are appropriate to local circumstances.

Those who produced the report were outwardly disappointed with the government's response.

'Risk of a blowout ... is enormous'

Alaskans have a bit of experience when it comes to the effectiveness of citizens advisory councils. Some, such as the Prince William Sound Citizens Advisory Council, are extremely effective at providing a means for local voice. But that council is somewhat extraordinary, and some might argue it is effective only because it was formed during a time when industry was forced to accept and give real authority to local voice. Other councils in Alaska are far less effective, holding little political or policy clout. Again, the argument could be made that real progress, like the implementation of an effective portal for citizen voice and control in industrial development only comes about on the heels of true, undeniable disaster.

Unfortunately for the Arctic, that would likely be too late. As we've seen in Prince William Sound, oil still sits just below the surface decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Scientists say an oil spill in the Arctic would be significantly more difficult, if not impossible, to clean up.

"In the Arctic Ocean, the risk of a catastrophic well blowout is enormous," said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and key witness in the British committee's investigation of Arctic policy issues. "We know what the environmental consequences would be. We know it would probably cause permanent damage in several of the ecosystems. You could not clean it up. You could not respond to it. You cannot restore the damage. We know the risk is so great that every potential risk reduction measure and mitigation measure needs to be put in the system."

The question of who has a legitimate voice in setting policy when it comes to Arctic issues is an interesting one. Citizens whose lives will be most affected by a spill or by the impacts of development have a significant stake. They also are impacted by the influx of jobs and development inevitably heading north to areas that have struggled economically. Who better to help set policy? But such councils will only be effective if they are truly given some jurisdiction. The response in Britain shows the reluctance even by large nations to step into the debate over Arctic oil exploration in a meaningful way, despite obvious evidence that such policy will impact people worldwide. Would that response have been different if the Kulluk had spilled fuel into Alaska waters. I would argue yes.

Those who crafted the recommendations to the British government were obviously frustrated by the governments reluctance.

"A few years ago, the Prime Minster rode with huskies in the Arctic to demonstrate his commitment on environmental issues, but now (that) he is being asked to protect that pristine wilderness for real, he has refused to take a lead on the issue,: said British Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Joan Walley in a released response. "The grounding of the Kulluk rig raises serious questions about the safety of Shell's operations in the Arctic and we will be calling them back into Parliament to give further evidence. Last summer's record Arctic sea ice melt should be seen as a wake-up call to governments to work together to protect this region, not a starting gun on a race to exploit its resources."

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary was first published. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.