The Madness of Drilling in the Chukchi Sea

There is a “baby boom” of gray whales happening this year. According to marine scientist observers in Alaska, a record number of 57 mother-newborn pairs were sighted heading back toward their Arctic feeding grounds in the Chukchi Sea in July. That’s a fivefold increase over any previous numbers seen. According to researcher Wayne Perryman of the federal government’s Southwestern Fisheries Science Center, “this was a big calf count year” as well, with an estimate of about 1,000 being born in Mexico’s Baja California lagoons.

Which is wonderful news for those of us who love the “friendly” gray whales – and have been concerned about falling population estimates (between 18,000 and 21,000, down quite a bit from the 26,000 of only fifteen years ago). Also encouraging are the surprising photo-ID studies showing that fourteen critically-endangered Western gray whales from Russia’s Sakhalin Island region made the long journey to join their Eastern counterparts last winter in the Baja lagoons, where they are likely interbreeding. Since there are less than a hundred of them left off Sakhalin – where oil companies are busily pumping right in their habitat – it would seem this is some kind of survival instinct.

But survival for both species could all become moot overnight. Royal Dutch Shell has been given permission by our government to drill for oil only 70 miles off Alaska’s northwest coast. That’s right in the heart of the gray whale feeding area in the Chukchi Sea. It’s also prime migratory habitat for bowhead whales, polar bears, seals, and walrus. If an oil spill anywhere close to what happened in the Gulf of Mexico occurs – and given the fact that drifting pack ice poses a constant threat to any ship operating there, it’s only a matter of time – you can kiss that ecosystem goodbye.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been sounding the alarm about this. In August, the NRDC released a report that urged the Department of Interior to delay the corporation’s drilling plan until more was known about the environmental impacts. “There is almost no margin for error as the Arctic is transformed,” the report said. “A comprehensive system of marine sanctuaries should be established….”

But while Interior dragged its heels on supplying data about the company’s testing of safety equipment, Royal Dutch Shell left its spill response barge behind in Bellingham, Washington and headed for the drilling area. The barge, which is supposed to be positioned right between Shell’s two drilling sites in case something goes wrong, had too many problems to make the voyage north! The Coast Guard wouldn’t certify it because of faulty wiring and potential fire hazards.

So – let the exploratory well begin! Drilling began at 4:30 AM on September 9, the first time in over two decades that “a drill bit has touched the sea floor” in the Chukchi, the company proclaimed proudly, calling it “an exciting time for Alaska and for Shell.” It had, after all, been more than four years since they paid $2.8 billion to the feds for the petroleum leases. What started under George W. Bush could now proceed under the Obama Administration.

One day after drilling commenced, the Noble Discoverer rig was faced with an ice floe measuring about 30 miles by 12 miles. Calling it a “significant pack of ice” amid shifting winds that brought it within 15 miles of the operation, Shell called a halt as a precaution. “The actions we took today underscore the technology and expertise required to work safely in the Arctic,” said a company spokesman. The deputy campaign director for Greenpeace, Dan Howell, saw it differently: “What more will it take for Shell to realize that the Arctic doesn’t want them there? It’s like a bad horror movie with a very real tragedy at its core.”

That “core tragedy” goes beyond the likelihood of a spill. Nowhere else on the planet has our rapidly changing climate been so evident as in this region. Temperatures have increased almost twice as fast as anywhere else. Arctic sea ice is disappearing far more quickly than anyone anticipated, bringing about the most open water ever witnessed here.

And that seems to have the oil behemoths frothing at the bit, so to speak. It’s been estimated that Arctic waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas hold 28 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Do ya think that burning all those fossil fuels might just accelerate the end-of-the-planet as we know it?

Do you like your catastrophe served fast-and-furious (as in oil spill) or portioned out over a few more years? That’s the choice we’re all being asked to swallow.