Earlier this week, a small group of Congressional members – all of whom represent states located thousands of miles from Alaska – sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to exclude the Arctic from her agency’s future oil and gas lease sales. As concerning as it is that our nation’s lawmakers should turn a cold shoulder to the needs and concerns of local Alaskan communities and the opportunity to bolster global energy security for decades to come, their letter is all the more disappointing in the way it recycles talking points used frequently by activist groups that just do not line up with the facts. For example, an activist with Earthjustice, a group campaigning to ban Arctic drilling, recently used the sixth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico as an opportunity to promote his group’s agenda – and to rehash false claims that serve only to arouse unwarranted fear. While one would hope that the leaders of our country would rise above inflammatory rhetoric and debunked claims, their letter bears disheartening resemblance to activist talking points, not least in the way it distracts from a productive conversation about our nation’s energy future.
Below, Arctic Energy Center takes a look at some of the misleading claims made by the Earthjustice activist, many of which can also be found in the lawmakers’ letter to Secretary Jewell.
MYTH: “Now imagine how Deepwater Horizon might have played out in a region 1,000 miles away from the nearest Coast Guard station, without basic infrastructure like roads, deep-water ports, hotels or large airports.”
FACT #1: Oil and gas companies drilling in the Arctic bring with them the equipment and infrastructure that they need to effectively respond in the unlikely event of a spill.
As an example, Shell’s approved oil spill response plan included redundant capping stacks on site and in place before it could commence drilling last summer. In addition, over 30 vessels further equipped the company to respond in adverse conditions, as did the helicopter hangar it had overhauled for search-and-rescue purposes in Barrow, Alaska.
FACT #2: The presence of oil and gas equipment helps fill infrastructural gaps in the region.
Oil and gas equipment and infrastructure could be – and have been – used for other purposes, such as safety and emergency response: The U.S. Coast Guard has already relied on oil and gas vessels for at least two search-and-rescue missions in recent years. Such “synergies” have been described this way:
“There are many synergies between the types of infrastructure that would facilitate Arctic oil and gas exploration and development and the infrastructure needs of local communities, the state of Alaska, and elements of the U.S. Forces such as the Coast Guard and Navy…The Coast Guard and Navy, which play key roles in areas of safety, search and rescue, and national defense, are subject to many of the same resupply and support requirements in the Arctic as the oil and gas industry.”
That’s why Northwest Arctic Borough mayor Reggie Joule told Alaska Dispatch News that Shell’s vessels provided an added measure of safety in the region, and the company’s departure put Alaska at a greater risk of a life-threatening tragedy at sea following the company’s departure.
FACT #3: Scaling back Arctic oil and gas activities actually threatens and delays much-needed infrastructural development in the region.
A concrete example: America’s first deepwater port in the Arctic, the pressing need for which has been articulated by many, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Yet, the project has been put on hold following Shell’s withdrawal from the Arctic, which had lessened the “federal interest” in the undertaking.
Indeed, Adm. Robert J. Papp, Special Representative for the Arctic and former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, warned last week that Shell’s departure removed the “sense of urgency to start making investments” in much-needed infrastructure such as a deepwater port and better telecommunications.
MYTH: “… [A]llowing offshore drilling to go forward there would take us in the wrong direction on climate change, and would be a blemish on President Obama’s stellar climate legacy.”
FACT: Arctic energy will play an important role in meeting future global energy demand, which is expected to increase in the coming decades.
Here is what some experts have said about the issue:
Richard Glenn of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents 12,000 Iñupiat shareholders:
“Finally, for those that wish to prevent Arctic development in the name reversing global carbon dioxide levels or addressing global climate change, we note that, with or without Arctic development, planes will still fly, trains will still run, and oil and gas resources will continue to be developed around the world and in the Arctic. Shutting down United States’ Arctic oil and gas development will not alter the world’s course, but will only negatively impact those who depend on development for their continued survival: our communities, our State, and our country.”
“I think it over-simplifies a very complex situation to suggest that one could simply cut off leasing or drilling on public lands and solve the issues of climate change,” Jewell said, speaking at a breakfast meeting organized by the Christian Science Monitor.
“I don’t accept as gospel that we have to leave all the carbon in the ground… the fact of the matter is that unless we come up immediately with another energy source, [the world is] going to continue to be dependent on carbon products.”
MYTH: “Experts agree an oil spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic. The government itself has admitted that there is a 75 percent chance of a major spill occurring in the region if the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea is developed.”
FACT: Actually, the government itself has pushed back against such claims, emphasizing that a large oil spill in the Arctic is “unlikely.”
In a fact sheet about the likelihood of an oil spill, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) wrote:
“Q: Is it accurate to say that ‘If Shell’s Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan is approved, there is a 75-percent chance of a large oil spill?’
BOEM went on to explain:
“Even in BOEM’s hypothetical scenario, the data suggest that a large spill in the exploration phase is very unlikely.”
Keeping in mind that BOEM’s definition of “large” oil spills are spills that exceed 1,000 barrels, the agency emphasized,
“[T]he spills modeled by BOEM are very unlikely to be the catastrophic historical events one might think of when we think of oil spills. For historical perspective, the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill is estimated to have been from 257,000 to 750,000 barrels; the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill is thought to have been 3.19 million barrels.”
Even though a large spill in the Arctic is “unlikely,” the industry has gone to great lengths to develop effective oil spill containment strategies, along with a host of robust prevention measures.
As Arctic Energy Center has written before, decades of research and in-depth scientific investigation have informed and advanced our preparedness to respond to oil spills. Effective oil spill response techniques include using mechanical containment and recovery equipment like skimmers and booms designed to remove oil from the surface of water; dispersants, which enhance the biodegradation of oil by Arctic microorganisms; and controlled in-situ burning, a technique of burning oil on the sea surface that has been safely and successfully used over the past 40 years.
In addition, because the best protection against oil spills is prevention, wells are designed to contain at least two barriers – and typically more – against any possible hazard. Furthermore, regulators have recently instituted new safeguards to “protect the environment beyond what has ever existed before,” including adopting new standards for well design, casing, and cementing.
MYTH: “But at the same time, the federal government’s proposed five-year leasing plan leaves the door open to more offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean. This would be a serious mistake, taking us in the wrong direction in combating climate change and placing communities and irreplaceable wildlife at risk.”
FACT: Not including the Arctic in the proposed five-year leasing plan would be a serious mistake – for global energy security, our nation’s economy, infrastructural development in the Arctic, and indeed the Native way of life.
In short, Arctic drilling presents an opportunity for the U.S. to provide a safe and reliable supply of energy for the decades to come, all while delivering substantial revenues to governments at the local, state, and federal level, providing Native communities with the resources they need to sustain their subsistence lifestyles, and bolstering the infrastructure and capabilities in the region.
Not including the Arctic in the Administration’s next five-year leasing plan would slam shut this window of opportunity. And that’s why Alaska Natives strongly support Arctic oil and gas development, as BOEM’s proposed leasing program document notes:
“During the Programmatic EIS [environmental impact statement] scoping period, several North Slope organizations, including the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough, and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, acknowledged that there can be benefits from oil and gas activity, if it is done safely, provided it does not conflict with the traditional and subsistence activities upon which those communities rely.” (S-7)