Arctic drilling may not seem like something that affects most of us. After all, when was the last time you had a chance to dive into icy Arctic waters with walruses or follow polar bears across vast stretches of sea ice? But now, you can experience the Arctic from the comfort of a theater seat with “To the Arctic,” a new IMAX® movie by MacGillivray Freeman.
The film, narrated by Meryl Streep, follows a polar bear and her two cubs as they make their way through the rugged Arctic landscape. Along the way, you’ll see amazing images of our rapidly changing world, including stunning footage of wildlife, sweeping stretches of tundra, ghostly northern lights, and sculpted icebergs dotting the ocean.
But there are some things you shouldn’t see in the Arctic—like offshore drilling rigs. This summer, Shell is planning to drill for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the north and west coasts of Alaska. Drilling for oil in this region would be incredibly risky. The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sub-zero temperatures and months-long darkness. Do these sound like prime conditions for responding to an emergency?
Exploration drilling—like the drilling proposed by Shell this summer—could be the first step toward rapid and unchecked development in the U.S. Arctic. Even if the initial operations go according to plan, Shell’s exploration drilling will bring increased pollution, noise, and air and vessel traffic to Arctic waters. And of course, things might not go as planned: offshore drilling could lead to a major oil spill that would devastate the Arctic ecosystem, people and wildlife. To date, oil and gas companies haven’t shown that they can effectively clean up a major oil spill in real-world Arctic conditions.
Given the risks, now is not the time to allow exploration drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Instead of giving the green light to drilling in the Arctic, the government should focus on identifying and protecting areas in the ocean that are especially important for wildlife and indigenous people. According to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report, there are still major gaps in our scientific understanding of the Arctic Ocean. We should have a research and monitoring plan designed to fill those gaps before drilling goes forward. And industry operators must demonstrate their ability to respond effectively to a large oil spill in real-world Arctic conditions. We still have a chance to get it right in the Arctic, but we need to slow down, do research, and put in place scientifically sound solutions.
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