Commentary: A job that needs to be done, that we expect to be done well


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Editor’s note: This article is a response to Rocky Kistner’s article, “In the Icy North, Risk of an Arctic Oil Disaster Looms,” published Aug. 21 at The Huffington Post.

 

It is understandable that people are nervous about oil exploration in the Arctic waters off of the Alaskan North Slope. There is a lot at stake – for the environment, for the Natives, for the industry, and for people everywhere. But before we assume that Arctic oil exploration is automatically a detriment to life as we know it, we need to be sure we have a common understanding of what is really going on in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

The (Natural Resources Defense Council) report that Mr. Kistner refers to states that “it is critical that Shell proceed cautiously.” I do not believe there is a person involved in the process who would disagree with that statement. Shell has spent more than $4 billion over a period of six-plus years to ready themselves for this challenge. If they were taking this lightly, they would not be sitting at dock waiting for their fourth line of defense to be readied before acting.

Not only is there no margin of error from the standpoint of the Natives and the environment, but there is no margin of error for industry. If they get this wrong, there is no going back. The Arctic waters are opening up, and there is an oil field with huge potential that is crucial to America’s economy and security. One accidental slip would negate all of the efforts Shell has put forth, and it would possibly close off development for our future needs. Shell understands this more than anyone.

The argument that big oil pushes the envelope of safety stands without merit. Shell has four lines of defense for a scenario that is likely to never occur. The U.S. Coast Guard will be standing by ready to assist at a moments notice.

It’s true that the Arctic lacks the same infrastructure that the Gulf possesses, but let’s be clear – the Arctic is not the Gulf. Should Shell be successful over the next couple of years, and other players come on board, infrastructure will grow proportionate to the level of development. Safety and infrastructure goes to where the oil is, not the other way around.

Drilling on American soil, whether it be land or sea, means drilling under the most strictest of safety standards anywhere on the globe. The level of scrutiny placed on oil companies is beyond comprehension for most people, and yet drilling is far removed from most people’s lives. When was the last time we saw this much coverage on something that touches our lives every day, such as car safety or building codes?

We don’t see coverage because we assume it’s done right and follows safety regulations put in place by manufacturing standards and government regulations. Yet cars crash every day and we aren’t clamoring for more information. Why do we assume that oil companies, alone, have no interest in preventing mishaps?

The claim that “oil and chemical spills in the fragile North Slope region occur daily” sounds frightening. Unfortunately Mr. Kistner failed to qualify his statement. The next time you are filling up your car at a gas station, look to the ground. You will notice gas residue all around the pumps. This isn’t a concern because it’s to be expected when filling up cars. Small spills at the source are to be expected, and they should not be blown out of proportion.

We should also not be making statements about pipelines ruining pristine sea beds when plans do not currently exist. It seems likely that an extension to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System will need to be built, but Shell has not brought any plans forward. To indicate with certainty that a system of pipes will be running in and around the coastal waters implies that Mr. Kistner has a better idea than Shell of their own plans. Perhaps Mr. Kistner could share these non-existent plans with the rest of us.

So far studies by both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have concluded that no species of animal has been harmed by the oil industry in the North Slope. The rhetoric that equates oil development with animal decline is ridiculous. Simply put, there are no cases of animal deaths or population decreases because of oil production in Alaska.

It is not hard to reason that those most dependent and supportive of environmental protection, Alaskan Natives, would be the first to rally against additional oil development. Using them as a scapegoat, as the NRDC report attempts to do in Chapter VI, is foolish. Natives living in the Arctic are some of the strongest supporters of development. It provides revenue for their villages, allowing them to continue their traditional way of life and also providing modern conveniences and comforts.

I agree with Mr. Kistner that we can better our world by investing in technologies that utilize the sun and the wind. We should do everything possible to limit our impact on the world and harness free energy. That said, oil is not replaceable by solar and wind.

Then sun and wind do not fuel our cars, aid in the development of electronics, medical devices, or military equipment, and the sun and wind cannot pave our roads.

The bottom line, Mr. Kistner, is that America has made its choice. We continue to use and purchase products at an astronomical rate that are affected by oil in one way or another.

To that end there is a job that needs to be done to satisfy our thirst. It may make some people feel better fighting against further development, but our every day actions are perfectly clear: Americans are demanding oil.

 

Michael Shively is a Policy & Communications Consultant for Arctic Power, a grassroots, nonprofit citizen’s organization with 10,000 members founded in April of 1992 to expedite congressional and presidential approval of oil exploration and production within the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Arctic Power is based in Anchorage.

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