Scientists take samples from Arctic sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea, 2010. (Image Credit: Kathryn Hansen / NASA)

Scientists take samples from Arctic sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea, 2010. (Image Credit: Kathryn Hansen / NASA)

An oil spill in the Arctic would be disastrous and potentially unfixable. As a point of reference, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill took 87 days to stop and unleashed 210 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster that is still impacting the area’s wildlife and economy today. According to Marilyn Heimann, director of the U.S. Arctic Program for Pew Charitable Trusts, a similar spill in the Arctic would be even worse. “[I]t took months in the Gulf to drill a relief well,” she said, “and they were not contending with extreme cold, darkness, high seas and ice.”

That is why it is so surprising that the US Interior Department upheld a 2008 lease sale on the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea on Tuesday, which paves the way for oil drilling in the region.

It is doubly surprising because little more than a year ago, the Interior released an environmental impact statement that concluded drilling in the Chukchi would have significant, negative, long-lasting impacts on the region – and carry a 75 percent risk that one or more large oil spills will occur if leases are developed. 

This report was produced only after a January 2014 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the Interior had violated the law when it initially sold the Chukchi leases. After the Court ordered the Interior to reconsider the leases, and the Department admitted that Arctic drilling is a no-good-very-bad-idea, that would, in a sane world, be the end of the matter.

But now the Interior has gone against its own assessment and opened 30 million acres of the Chukchi to oil exploration.

“Our Arctic ocean is flat out the worst place on Earth to drill for oil,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The world’s last pristine sea, it is both too fragile to survive a spill and too harsh and remote for effective cleanup.”

Planet Experts editor-in-chief Pierce Nahigyan has written extensively about Shell & ConocoPhillips’ designs on the Arctic, and the Bureau of Ocean Management will soon conduct an environmental assessment on the former company’s exploration plan.

Marissa Knodel, a climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth, has called the Interior’s decision “unconscionable.”

A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-65 Jayhawk helicopter crew delivers personnel to the conical drilling unit Kulluk, southeast of Kodiak, Alaska. (Image Credit: Jonathan Klingenberg, United States Coast Guard)

Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska after the choppy seas separated it from its tow ships. Carrying about 139,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of lubricating oil and hydraulic fluid, the Kulluk was a $292 million disaster. (Image Credit: Jonathan Klingenberg, United States Coast Guard)

“It is unconscionable that the federal government is willing to risk the health and safety of the people and wildlife that live near and within the Chukchi Sea for Shell’s reckless pursuit of oil,” she said. “Shell’s dismal record of safety violations and accidents, coupled with the inability to clean up or contain an oil spill in the remote, dangerous Arctic waters, equals a disaster waiting to happen.”

“We are disappointed in Interior’s rushed lease sale decision,” said Erik Grafe, a staff attorney with Earthjustice. “Interior still has time to make a better decision when evaluating Shell’s drilling plan, and we sincerely hope it says no to Shell’s louder, bigger, and dirtier tactics, loaded with potential environmental harm.

Last January, Alaska Native and conservation groups were overjoyed by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and called it “a victory for the Arctic Ocean.”

In a joint statement, the several organizations declared that “[t]he government has no business offering oil companies leases in the Chukchi Sea. The area is home to iconic species such as polar bear, bowhead whales, and walrus and to a vibrant indigenous subsistence culture. Drilling for oil puts at risk the region’s wildlife and people, and it takes us off the path toward a clean energy future.”

The organizations urged the Obama administration to “take seriously its obligation to re-think whether to allow risky industrial activities in the Chukchi Sea.”

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s decision seems to now be that the oil – an estimated three years’ worth of global demand – is worth the risk.

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