Big Oil’s Arctic Bet: A Fool’s Risk

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” We’ve all heard it – and lived it – as individuals and collectively as Americans.

We’ve all had to confront someone who has fooled or even misled us. But when Big Oil repeatedly tells us a monumental lie, we’re struck with collective amnesia.

Marking the second anniversary of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which occurred April 20, 2010, we can’t help but remember the rage and heartbreak we all felt when 11 men died and we saw images of oiled Brown Pelicans, flattened to the wet sand. Scientists are just now reporting ominous disruptions in the Gulf’s underwater food chain and we still don’t fully understand the long-term impact on birds and other wildlife.

It was a case of “shame on you” in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, spilling tens of millions of gallons of crude oil into the pristine and achingly beautiful southern Alaska landscape. But there was plenty of shame to go around two years ago as the BP oil disaster unfolded in the Gulf, spewing more than 200 million gallons into what, from a bird and human standpoint, is one of America’s most precious ecosystems.

William K. Reilly, a lifelong conservationist and moderate Republican, co-chaired the commission investigating the BP disaster. Reilly was EPA administrator at the time of the Valdez, and he was flabbergasted to find that nothing much had changed since 1989.

Reilly concluded that the BP spill “evidenced a failure of management, and good management could have avoided the catastrophe….We are not dealing here with a sick or failing or unsuccessful industry but with a complacent one.”

Reilly reminds us that we in fact dodged a bullet two years ago:

“…there was a point in the management of this crisis when industry experts feared the entire 120-million-barrel reservoir might seep through the ocean floor and wreak total havoc… What would we be talking about today if the well couldn't be canned?… We'd be having an existential conversation about whether offshore drilling should ever be permitted in US coastal waters again.”

Bill Reilly is no bomb-thrower. At the time he co-chaired the BP spill commission he was serving on the boards of ConocoPhilips and DuPont.

As we mark this anniversary, two immediate challenges leap to mind:

First, we must restore the Gulf Coast. The BP spill was a major blow to a region already under stress from urban sprawl, wetlands loss and pollution. Congress is now weighing a measure – called the RESTORE Act – that would divert most or all of BP’s penalties to gulf cleanup. Bipartisan versions of this measure have passed both the Senate and the House; it’s time for Congress to finish the job and send a final bill to the president.

Second, even as you read this, a drilling fleet under contract to Shell Oil is making its way to a patch of seabed less than 15 miles from Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Incredibly, Shell has secured nearly all the government permissions it needs to begin drilling operations in a body of water that is ice-covered much of the year, in a place where the sun does not shine for months on end, and where extreme weather is commonplace.

The U.S. Government’s own non-partisan watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) thinks this is a terrible idea. We agree. Cleaning up a major spill in the Arctic would make the BP disaster look like child’s play. Last month the GAO issued a report raising fundamental concerns about whether a major spill could ever be managed in icy conditions.

If there is a spot on Earth as sacred or as critical to the future of our wild birds as the Gulf of Mexico, it is probably the unspoiled Arctic. Here, hundreds of bird species arrive every spring from all four North American flyways – the superhighways in the sky that birds use to travel up and down the Americas. Here, they mate, lay eggs and raise their young. Here also, many of America’s remaining polar bears make their winter dens along the coasts.

The potential harm from a BP-scale spill is almost beyond comprehension. And, there is growing evidence that we simply do not need to take risks like this to meet our nation’s energy needs. Oil imports are down. Oil production from domestic wells is up thanks to new technology. We’re driving farther on a gallon of gas and using less. Energy independence is becoming a real possibility.

Since those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it, the price of social amnesia has become unacceptably high. A workable balance between powering the nation and protecting our natural bounty is within reach, but only if we remember, learn, and not be fooled again.               ###

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