Caution vs. Recklessness in the Arctic

Michael Conathan shows how the oil-and-gas industry could learn from fishermen’s approach to Arctic resources.

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Ships bringing oil drilling equipment to Alaska, left, pass through Seattle's Elliott Bay as a Washington State Ferry passes on its way into Seattle, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (AP/Donna Gordon Blankinship)
Ships bringing oil drilling equipment to Alaska, left, pass through Seattle's Elliott Bay as a Washington State Ferry passes on its way into Seattle, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. (AP/Donna Gordon Blankinship)

Arctic sea ice coverage has been declining for decades, and 2011 set a record for the lowest amount of coverage ever recorded—a record we’re currently threatening to break. Less ice and more open water means the region will soon be available for additional human activity.

Shipping companies and cruise lines are already utilizing new routes, taking advantage of the long-sought northwest passage from Europe and North America to Asia. And as soon as next week, Shell Oil could receive the green light to begin drilling up to five new exploratory oil-and-gas wells off the north slope of Alaska. As Big Oil prepares to exploit the emerging resources and access, the fishing industry has chosen to take a very different approach—one the oil companies should heed.

In August 2009 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration formally approved a proposal by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to ban all fishing activity in the U.S. Arctic except subsistence fishing by Alaska Natives. Members of the council—the majority of which is comprised of fishing industry representatives—voted unanimously to recommend the prohibition. In a remarkably forward-looking move, the body also opted to close the nearly 150,000-square-mile Arctic Management Area (see Figure 1) until adequate scientific fish stock assessments and other data could be collected that would ensure this virgin resource could be managed sustainably.

Figure 1

This move gained the support of environmental organizations such as Oceana, The Ocean Conservancy, and the Pew Environment Group, as well as Alaska’s biggest coalition of fishing industry interests—the Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents more than two-thirds of the state’s groundfishermen and crabbers.

The fishing industry’s approach to management stands in direct contrast to that taken by the oil-and-gas industry and its federal regulators. Shell has led Big Oil’s charge into the Arctic Ocean and is on the cusp of receiving final permits that could allow them to begin drilling operations there as soon as next week. Logic would dictate this means we know more about the science of oil in the Arctic than we do about the science of fish. Not so.

The same lack of knowledge about baseline environmental conditions in the region that has caused fishermen and their regulators to hit the pause button have not slowed the oil industry. While Shell and other oil companies have committed resources to research projects such as the Chukchi Sea Environmental Studies Program, they are not waiting to see data from these efforts before plowing forward with drilling operations.

Where the fishing industry has taken a reasoned, methodical approach, oil and gas and their regulators are operating full speed ahead, though Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has insisted that Shell’s permits would be issued “under the most watched program in the history of the United States.”

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has ramped up its Arctic effort, driven primarily by the need to babysit Shell’s drilling operations. To do this it will have to reallocate ships, helicopters, and personnel that would otherwise be dedicated to its traditional missions including migrant and drug interdiction, search and rescue, and fisheries enforcement. And it’s already desperately lacking in Arctic-capable resources, with just one seaworthy icebreaking vessel currently afloat (our two others are in drydock awaiting funding for lengthy and expensive repairs). “The Coast Guard has zero capability in the Arctic,” admitted the service’s commandant, Adm. Robert Papp, last month.

Adm. Papp spoke in more reassuring tones about Shell’s drilling operations earlier this week when questioned by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) at a field hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Homeland Security held at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. Sen. Landrieu asked about the ability to muster a response like the one required in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and Adm. Papp assured her that as the party ultimately responsible for spill cleanup, Shell would “have everything in place, ready to go, an overabundance of caution.”

This seems an extremely optimistic proposition given the stark lack of infrastructure available to responders in the Arctic. An in-depth Center for American Progress report issued in February points out the dramatic difference in infrastructure between the heavily developed and industrialized Gulf Coast and the remote emptiness of Alaska’s north slope, which has no seaports, no railroads, only a handful of airports, and one highway connecting it to the rest of the state.

If the aggressive move to accelerate drilling operations should lead to an accident, the fishing industry’s sensible sacrifices will all be for naught. Following the BP spill, scientists and regulators are still sorting out the damage that’s been done. Shrimp harvests are down, and many with no eyes are turning up in nets. Fishermen are landing red snapper and more than 20 other species covered in lesions. Dolphins are stranding themselves on beaches in unprecedented numbers. Oyster beds have been decimated and harvests remain well below average.

Granted, the comparison between Shell’s potential wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf is not apples to apples. The Arctic wells will be less complex geologically. Yet while the risks may be different, they are no less severe, and the potential for damage is literally unquantifiable because we simply don’t know enough about the ecology of the region.

The differences between the fishing and oil-and-gas industries when it comes to operating in the Arctic also raise a red flag about a proposal by President Barack Obama to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association from its current home in the Department of Commerce to the Department of the Interior. As I wrote last winter when the proposal was announced, unless such a move were accompanied by a change in attitude at Interior about prioritizing science in management decisions, it’s hard to see how it could be construed as positive for the fishing industry or our marine natural resources.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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