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BP's Next Disaster

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But despite such warning signs, BP's project has the blessing of Minerals Management Service — the government agency that oversees offshore drilling. Last year, one month after it gave BP the go-ahead to drill in the Gulf, MMS bestowed a leadership award on the company in recognition of Liberty's "visionary approach" to drilling. While regulators must still approve the final paperwork for the project, MMS tells Rolling Stone that it considers Liberty safe. It says that BP has the capacity to respond to a worst-case discharge of 20,000 barrels a day, and adds that the "island has been designed to contain surface liquids within the footprint of the island." Environmentalists scoff at the idea that any spill would be limited to Liberty's gravelly isle. "If the thing blew," says Clusen, "the oil would be falling into the water."

The Obama administration has been warned by its own scientists that drilling in the Arctic poses a grave risk to the environment. Last September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urged the president to halt future leases in the Arctic, warning that federal regulators operating on Bush-era guidelines had "greatly understated" the risks of drilling. Both industry and government, the scientists added, displayed a "lack of preparedness for Arctic spill responses" and had failed to "fully evaluate the potential impacts of worst-case scenarios."

That's putting it mildly. Shell has received all the environmental permits it needs to drill five exploratory wells in the Arctic — but in light of the BP disaster in the Gulf, the documents read like a sick joke. According to the Environmental Assessment that Interior conducted last December on Shell's drilling plan, "A very large spill from a well-control incident is not a reasonably foreseeable event, and therefore, this EA does not analyze the impacts of such a worst-case scenario." The response plan that Shell put together in case of a disaster is equally disturbing: The oil giant says it is only prepared to respond to a spill of 5,500 barrels a day — a fraction of the 60,000 barrels currently estimated to be pouring into the Gulf. Shell, the eighth-largest corporation in the world, has a disturbing record when it comes to the environment: Its operations in Nigeria spilled at least 100,000 barrels of crude last year alone.

A spokesman for the Interior Department assures Rolling Stone that the final paperwork for Shell's drilling in the Arctic won't be considered until next January, giving the department time to "gather additional scientific information about resources, risks and environmental sensitivities" in the region. But the spokesman concedes that federal regulators have made no move to revise the faulty environmental assessments upon which Shell's permits were originally approved. That process, experts say, would have to be well under way by now if Interior officials want to have a meaningful assessment in hand by the time the suspension expires.

Experts also warn that a spill in the Arctic would be far worse than the disaster currently unfolding in the Gulf, where experienced contractors and relief equipment are close at hand. By contrast, the sites in the Arctic where Shell plans to drill are devilishly remote. The closest Coast Guard station is on Kodiak Island, some 1,000 miles away. The nearest cache of boom to help contain a spill is in Seattle — a distance of 2,000 miles. There are only two small airports in the region, and even if relief supplies could somehow be airlifted to the tundra, there are no industrial ports to offload equipment into the water. Relief equipment can realistically be brought to the region only by boat — and then only seasonally. The Arctic is encased in ice for more than half the year, and even icebreakers can't assure access in the dark of winter. "If it's this hard to clean this up in the relatively benign conditions of the Gulf of Mexico," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse cautioned Salazar at a hearing after the BP spill, "good luck trying to implement this sort of a cleanup in the Arctic."

Shell, in fact, has never conducted an offshore-response drill in the Chukchi Sea. Perhaps that's because there's no proven technology for cleaning up oil in icy water, which can render skimming boats useless — much less to cope with a gusher under the ice. In the worst-case scenario, according to marine scientists, a blowout that takes place in the fall, when the seas are freezing over, could flow unabated until relief wells could be drilled the following summer. In the interim, oil could spread under the sea ice, marring the coastlines of Russia and Canada, and possibly reaching as far as Norway and Greenland. "It could realistically be a circumpolar event," says Steiner.

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