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Risk assessment in the Arctic Ocean needs a closer look

Michael Wald

This winter as Shell Oil readied for the first-ever drilling season in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, we in the north have been holding our breaths. While politicians and pundits have been blaming the price at the pump for all that ails our nation, the Arctic winter has raged on heedless of the plans for the future of the Arctic Ocean. Having spent my adult life studying, exploring, and sharing the natural wonders of Arctic Alaska, I fear that policy makers neither care about the vitality of the region, nor have they honestly and accurately assessed the risks involved with offshore oil production in these storm battered seas.

As a professional wilderness guide I make my living managing risk; evaluating perceived and real dangers, and the likelihood of things “going south” hundreds of miles from the nearest road or hospital. Risk management is not unique to the wilderness; and in fact, it is the premise of the federal environmental review process, which has somehow yielded permits for drilling in the most remote and challenging environment on earth. As a risk manager I have grave concerns with Shell Oil’s proposed drilling activities in the Arctic Ocean.

Though government regulators have released reams of paperwork masquerading as thoughtful risk management, there is an element in the rubric decidedly absent—a connection to the region. How many of the regulators have been to the Arctic? How many have watched the heavy winter ice pile itself upon the beach in a winter storm? The level of risk we are willing to engage in depends upon our level of investment. This flawed decision process has garnered Shell Oil permission to drill north of Alaska’s coast this summer and allowed violations to the Clean Air Act which would be unthinkable anywhere else in the nation.

When evaluating acceptable risks, context and resilience must be considered. To extend the wilderness guiding analogy; do you run the same rapids with a group in their 70’s as you do with a group of 20 somethings? When determining the wisdom of an industrial project in the Arctic, we must also evaluate the region as a whole and any likely projects in the future. Even assuming the veracity of Shell’s assertion that a large spill is highly unlikely, the reality of the weather and location make containment, never mind clean-up, all but impossible. With more than 1,000 miles between the Chukchi Sea and the nearest Coast Guard station or deep-water port, roughly the distance from New Orleans to Ontario, a scant 2 months of ice-free conditions, not to mention the horrendous weather year-round, the ability to effectively respond to an accident is non-existent. Given this context and the history of spills in Alaska, the risks associated with drilling in the Arctic Ocean are unacceptable.

Even without a spill, the impacts to an ecosystem already reeling from climate change are significant. The Arctic Ocean is experiencing changes to its ecology and very structure that are unprecedented. Subjecting it to decades of industrial exploitation would be devastating. If Shell is allowed to drill this summer, there will be many more wells in the years to come. Statoil and Conoco Phillips are already preparing to follow.

No doubt the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are distant from the rest of our nation, but drilling here will not have any measurable effect on your fuel bill, not next week, not next year. When evaluating the pros and cons of the project, I think most Americans would agree, the risk column is long and chilling, and the benefit column is uninspiring for everyone except Shell Oil. Here in Alaska, drilling in the Arctic Ocean is an unacceptable risk. Now is the time for President Obama to take a closer look at the risk assessment that governs his decisions about oil development in the Arctic. Now is the time to stop Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

Michael Wald is owner and guide for Arctic Wild, an Alaska wilderness guide service.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.