Such a disaster would threaten the Arctic's bountiful marine life, including polar bears, walruses, seals and migratory seabirds from every continent but Europe, to say nothing of gray whales and the endangered bowhead whale, on whose continued survival the native hunting communities along the Arctic coast depend. "It would wipe out the indigenous cultures and their subsistence lifestyle," says Clusen. And because the Arctic's frigid waters don't support the bounty of micro-organisms that scientists are counting on to help break down oil in the Gulf, a massive spill may prove almost impossible to clean up. "If you put a million barrels of oil in the Arctic Ocean," warns Steiner, "it would be there for decades."
In its recent appeals to government regulators, Shell has claimed that, because it would be drilling in shallow waters of roughly 150 feet, its operations in the Arctic would be safer than BP's well in the Gulf, which ruptured 5,000 feet below the surface. But the government's own data shows that most blowouts occur in shallow water. And the 10-week-long gusher that followed the blowout of a rig last fall in shallow waters off the coast of Australia is proof that catastrophe can strike at any depth.
"Drilling in the Arctic should make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck," says Sylvia Earle, the former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There are values there that transcend the value of any fossil fuel we can extract — irreplaceable ecosystems that we don't know how to put together again. There are some places you should not drill, period."
The Arctic, it turns out, is not the only place that the Obama administration is poised to give oil companies a new lease on life. In another indication that the president's six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling may be nothing but a stalling tactic, MMS has continued to accept bids on drilling tracts in the Gulf. Indeed, since President Obama announced his halt to deep-water drilling on May 27th, MMS has approved bids on at least 96 tracts in deep water. Two of the bids are from BP — and one is in the same undersea canyon where the company's gusher continues to foul the Gulf.
The White House contends that MMS is simply "finalizing paperwork" from bids submitted prior to the disaster. But environmentalists are aghast. "These new leases are based on the same fundamentally flawed and patently illegal environmental analyses used to greenlight Deepwater Horizon," says Mike Senatore of Defenders of Wildlife, which filed suit against MMS in June to block the expansion of drilling. "This agency is at the epicenter of the worst environmental disaster in history, and yet it's still going about business as usual."
This article appears in RS 1108/1109 from July 8-22, 2010, on newsstands Friday, June 25.
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