A new chapter in the insanity of Arctic drilling begins


So far, 2015 has been a mostly gloomy year in the arena of fighting back against fossil fuel. Neither the plunging prices for oil and gas nor the growing realization — even embraced this week in the corridors of the Vatican — that greenhouse gases threaten the health and welfare of entire planet have made much of a dent in our mad rush to drill deep under the sea, in bitter environments such as the Arctic, or beneath family farms in the American Heartland. And citizen protests — like the briefly successful movement to ban fracking in the Texas city of Denton — are routinely quashed by Big Oil’s handmaidens in the halls of government. President Obama — who ran as the pro-environmental candidate — has green-lighted offshore drilling in the southern Atlantic and dithered on killing the Keystone XL pipeline.

But in a down year, there had to be no sadder sight than the failure of 16 brave protesters in kayaks this week. They were seeking to block Shell’s giant drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, from leaving the Port of Seattle en route to the icy waters off Alaska, for yet another attempt at off-shore drilling in the utterly dangerous — and utterly ridiculous — hostile Arctic environment. The kayakers’ protest was doomed to fail and yet it was also a monument to the common sense that seems lacking in our federal government. The plan for off-shore drilling in the Arctic isn’t just risking an environmental calamity…it all but guarantees one.

Looming over the departure, and over the entire issue of Arctic oil drilling, are the two highest-profile spills of recent history: the Exxon Valdez oil spill, off Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout.

The Valdez spill was a lesson in how unprepared people were for oil’s complicated, long-term ecological effects, said University of North Carolina marine scientist Charles Peterson. Impacts rippled through food chains, causing damage – to fisheries, cetaceans and the very structure of the aquatic environment – that took decades to recover from, and in some cases are permanent.

Whereas Valdez was a surface spill, the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred a mile beneath the ocean. There, said Peterson, we learned how differently oil behaves at extreme depths: forming suspended plumes rather than rising to the surface, and proving extremely difficult to control and to clean.

Both lessons may apply to a deep-sea Arctic spill. The Polar Pioneer’s first wells will be sited at depths of 8,000 feet, and a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report put the chances of a major spill happening before century’s end at 75%. Even if it beats those odds, drilling in the Arctic represents the tapping of a vast new source of carbon pollution, pushing Earth’s climate even further into peril.

That’s a statistic that just boggles your mind. The 75 percent risk of a major spill from offshore drilling in the Arctic isn’t a risk, it’s as close as you can get to a certainty. I remember reading during the years after 9/11 that former Vice President Dick Cheney believed the government should take extreme measures if there was even a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack with unconventional weapons. And yet a 75 percent chance of destroying Alaska’s splendid natural environment gets a giant “whatever” and a shrug from the current government.

Some people understand the insanity of all this. The actress Jane Fonda, who at age 77 had scaled back her social activism, learned about Shell’s Arctic drilling scheme and immediately saw of threat on the same scale as the Vietnam War that she’d protested in the 1960s and ’70s. This is what Fonda told the Guardian newspaper as she took part in a protest in British Columbia:

“It’s unfathomable,” she says with a shudder. “I voted for Obama. We’ve been huge supporters and I don’t see him as someone in thrall to big corporations. Did he think he could get this through without anyone noticing?”

The move, she says, has wiped out any environmental good the president has effected during his term of office.

“But it’s not too late for him to change his mind,” she says. “And that’s one reason I’m here.”

The good news is that more people, like Fonda, are beginning to take notice. Unfortunately, a small flotilla of kayakers and a small gaggle of celebrities aren’t enough to stop Shell and its enablers in Washington in 2015. But hopefully the message will break through before scientists’ grim 75-year prophecy comes to pass.

Read more about protests against Shell’s Arctic drilling scheme in the Port of Seattle: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/15/seattle-kayak-activists-detained-blocking-shell-arctic-oil-rig

Check out the actor and activist Jane Fonda’s interview with the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/15/jane-fonda-shell-arctic-oil-drilling-obama

I warn against the perils of extreme drilling in the Arctic and elsewhere in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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