What's Black and White and Oily All Over?


Alaskan Polar Bear wrapped in oil pipeline web. Image credit: Beehive Collective, Art Not Oil.
This is a guest post by Greg Haegele, Deputy Executive Director, Sierra Club...

That would be a polar bear in middle of an oil slick. Keep that in mind as you read my post.

Last week's decision by the Interior Department to approve exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska simply does not add up.

When it came to this decision, the Obama administration was in a tough spot. The Bush administration had already leased this important polar bear habitat to Shell Oil, and the state of Alaska is always in favor of new drilling, no matter how badly it hurts wildlife and wild places. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should have rejected Shell's plans to drill.But drilling in the Chukchi says more about Shell Oil and the state of Alaska than it does about the Obama administration.

The Chukchi Sea is a terrible place to drill for oil, both because of its ecological importance and because it would be incredibly difficult to remove and transport any oil found in the region. Remote and pristine, the Chukchi Sea provides important habitat for threatened polar bears and endangered whales. The area Shell has leased is 80 miles off shore, in waters frozen solid most of the year and only open when the ice breaks up from July to mid-October. Worse, the Chukchi's churning sea ice would make it impossible to clean up an oil spill.

No matter what Shell or other oil companies say, oil and gas drilling is still a dirty and dangerous business. This year has seen a major spill - from a new, high-tech rig - off the coast of Australia. And just last week, BP admitted that it was responsible for one of the biggest oil spills ever recorded in Alaska. The company discovered a 24-inch hole in a pipeline that spewed more than 40,000 gallons of pollution onto Alaska's North Slope.

And too many questions remain about the logic of drilling in this fragile area. Even if Shell finds oil in the Chukchi Sea, how will the company get it to shore? Does the company really want to ship the oil - through water full of hazardous chunks of ice - via tanker? And if does get taken out by tanker, where will it go? There is no port on Alaska's Arctic coast capable of handling oil tankers. So will Shell tanker the oil all the way around Alaska, to the port of Valdez thousands of miles away? Or will Shell ship the oil directly to China or Korea, where profits could be higher than in the U.S.?

It's interesting that no other oil company wants to drill in the Chukchi. Shell seems more desperate than its colleagues at Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Exxon. Years after being caught overstating the amount of oil the company is producing, Shell appears desperate to hunt for oil anywhere, even in places where they may not be able to get the oil out for years to come.

The state of Alaska is not much better. Alaska politicians from Sarah Palin to Ted Stevens have long supported exploiting the Chukchi. These politicians have a track record of supporting any kind of drilling, anywhere - even if it means driving wildlife like the polar bear to the brink of extinction.

Shell's pursuit of oil in the Chukchi Sea simply doesn't make sense. Right now, the rest of the world is working together to end our dependence on fossil fuels and move into the clean energy economy. But Shell is continuing to blindly pursue its desperate search for oil - even in a place as unpromising and risky as Alaska's Chukchi Sea.

Drilling in the Chukchi Sea is a foolish move on Shell's part. We shouldn't allow the company to destroy important Arctic habitat in the pursuit of its outdated pipe dream. It's time to stop chasing every drop of oil on the planet and start focusing on clean energy instead.

This post was co-written by Athan Manuel, Director of the Sierra Club Public Lands Protection Program.

Tags: Alaska