The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us that the price of offshore oil drilling is the constant risk of environmental devastation. In Alaska, we know this through bitter experience. Just over 21 years ago the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine waters and rich fishing grounds of Prince William Sound. The economies of those affected fishing villages have never recovered, and to this day if you walk the beaches of the Sound and dig down you can still find oil.
Now, even as skimmers and fishing boats scramble in the Gulf to try to keep the oil from shore, another fleet is preparing to set sail for America’s Arctic Ocean–to drill for more oil. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has authorized exploratory drilling in the fragile arctic waters in less than 60 days. The Minerals Management Service–the same Interior Department division that okayed BP’s Gulf drilling project with no environmental review–acknowledges that a large spill in the Arctic could have terrible consequences, but concludes that the chance of such a spill is “too remote and speculative an event” to warrant analysis.
I have been fortunate in my life to spend time in arctic Alaska. This remote region is one of the wildest spots left on the globe. I’ve watched walrus gather on ice floes, puffins “fly” through the water, and polar bears prowl the ice edge. I have traveled with Alaska Native people, who have lived on these lands and waters for hundreds of generations, and listened as they describe their connections to this land and importance of these animals to their culture and subsistence. A major spill could leave oil in these waters for decades, killing whales, seals, and fish, and bringing to an end Alaska Natives’ ancient way of life.
The Arctic is already paying the price for our fossil fuel habit. Northern Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the lower 48. The people of the North Slope see the impacts every day–in loss of sea ice, changes in animal abundance and behavior, and the loss of important subsistence opportunities. To see the impacts of oil development they need only look at Prudhoe Bay, one of the world’s largest industrial complexes. Hundreds of spills involving tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil and other petroleum products occur annually. Decades-old diesel spill sites still show little vegetation re-growth. Gravel fill, excavation, and waste disposal alone have destroyed 17,000 acres of wildlife and marine habitat.
Now big oil is working to push this development offshore. Should an oil spill happens here, the response capabilities are a fraction of what is now proving inadequate in the Gulf. There, within 24 hours, 32 spill-response vehicles, 1 million feet of containment boom, and at least six firefighting vessels were able to muster. If a similar situation occurred in the Chukchi Sea, there would be only 13 spill-response vehicles, less than 3,000 feet of containment boom, and a single firefighting system.
The White House has pledged that no additional offshore drilling would be authorized until a government investigation into the Gulf of Mexico disaster is complete. This pledge must include Shell’s upcoming drilling in the Chukchi Sea. Next, we must move America as quickly as possible to a clean energy economy. Rather than drilling in the Arctic ocean or Gulf of Mexico, we can embrace 21st century sustainable energy solutions that make cars go farther, promote conservation, invest in clean, renewable energy, and protect our natural heritage.
The Arctic–for now–is still vibrant and alive. When I visit the Arctic coast next month I’ll see sandpipers who have flown over the Gulf oil spill on their way back to their summer home where they will hatch a new generation. President Obama must act now to ensure that their home is not sacrificed to tomorrow’s oil disaster.