If you thought the pictures of scum-covered Brown Pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico were heartbreaking, just wait for the first drilling disaster in Alaska's frozen arctic waters and coastline.
We know so little about this deep freeze of an environment that America's best scientists and experts say they're not sure how to fix it if we break it.
Their nightmare scenario is a BP-like blowout in an ice-locked sea. Imagine these pictures: a helpless army suited up like Michelin men trying to rescue dying ducks, loons and polar bears from oil-slicked ice floes. The Obama administration is on the verge of giving Shell Oil the green light to begin drilling operations in the icy Beaufort Sea off Alaska's northern coast less than 15 miles from the fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It appears Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is having second thoughts. He should.
Why? It's not safe enough for even BP to drill and we know what their safety standards are like. BP, yes BP, announced last week that it's calling it quits on a $1.5 billion project that was 14 years in the making in the same area.
Why? According to BP, the project "does not meet our test" for safety standards and it would cost too much to make it so. So what does BP know that Shell doesn't?
Oh, right. Experience, at the expense of the Gulf Coast. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. America's largest marine oil spill.
Shell is hardly off to a confidence-building start in Alaska. Last weekend, the company lost control of one of its primary drilling ships before the vessel had even left the harbor. The 571-foot drilling rig, Noble Discoverer, slipped anchor and came dangerously close to running aground before it was stopped.
And what about the Coast Guard requirement that Shell's oil spill recovery barge be able to withstand a worst-in-100-years storm in some of the most extreme sea conditions in the world? Shell recently disclosed its 37-year-old barge could withstand a storm that might be the worst in a decade. Maybe.
And Shell has revealed that its drilling fleet can't meet the air pollution limits it already agreed to when the Environmental Protection Agency granted its required permits. Shell has known it couldn't meet the standards since 2010.
If Shell's ships can't meet pollution standards, if its rescue barges are substandard for Arctic conditions, if it can't control a drilling rig in a calm harbor and if it can't come clean about its ability to play by the rules how can Shell possibly guarantee it can handle an oil spill in a notoriously hostile environment with massive waves and gale-force winds?
The Government Accountability Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress, has warned that even with the precautions that Shell Oil has promised, those "capabilities do not completely mitigate some of the environmental and logistical risks associated with the remoteness and environment of the region." Translation: we haven't learned anything from the BP oil disaster.
Here's what's at risk. If there is a spot on Earth as critical to the future of our wild birds as the Gulf of Mexico, it is probably the Arctic. Hundreds of bird species arrive every spring from six continents and all four North American flyways, mate and raise their young in one of the world's most prolific bird nurseries. And many of America's remaining polar bears make their winter dens along the coasts while the last herds of thousands of caribou roam the tundra. Sounds like nature at its purest, right?
This is really an easy choice. This is about choosing our kids and creation over breaking the ice for oil we can get from other, saner places.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Yarnold is CEO and president of National Audubon Society. Readers may write to him at: National Audubon Society, 225 Varick Street, New York, N.Y. 10014; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Op Ed first appeared in the Miami Herald.