Today marks the 26 anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska where nearly 11 million gallons of oil spewed into the ocean over the course of three days. Exxon failed to carry out its pre-approved oil spill response plan because their response barge was “out of service and unavailable for use.” Even if the barge were operational, it lacked enough skimmers and booms to handle the spill. Government officials and local volunteers quickly began spearheading the cleanup. Despite their best efforts to make up for Exxon’s systematic failure, only 14 percent of the spill was removed. This massive spill caused then Governor of Alaska, Steve Cowper, to declare a state of emergency. Oil from the spill can still be found today and some places may be as toxic as they were 26 years ago.
Now, more than two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Arctic Ocean is still threatened by risky oil drilling. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released an analysis that showed a 75 percent chance of at least one major spill if companies were allowed to develop oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast. Rapidly forming sea ice, fog, high winds, extreme cold and lack of infrastructure make it nearly impossible to clean up an oil spill in Arctic waters. Even in the Gulf of Mexico, only 19 percent of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was removed or dispersed.
Oil companies have failed to show they can drill responsibly in the Arctic. In 2012, Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, the Kulluk, ran aground near Kodiak Island on its way back from drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea. A Coast Guard report found that Shell failed to recognize the risk, used subpar equipment to deal with the environment and had too little experience dealing with Arctic waters. Also, Shell was in a hurry to move Kulluk because they didn’t want to pay state taxes to Alaska for keeping it there after the after year.
A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) analysis showed that marine mammals in the Arctic would be subject to dangerous levels of noise caused by exploration drilling. This could disrupt migrations, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding and sheltering.
At this very moment, a barge carrying 925 gallons of diesel fuel has been drifting aimlessly in the Arctic after severe weather broke its tow 5 months ago. Rapidly forming sea ice has beaten back any attempts at securing the vessel. The earliest another rescue attempt could be made is July.
People and marine life alike depend on a clean and healthy Arctic. Adding reckless drilling to the number of threats facing the Arctic (like loss of sea ice, rising temperatures and increased shipping) will only make matters worse in this once pristine environment.