WASHINGTON, DC, May 4, 2010–As thousands of barrels of oil continue to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, World Wildlife Fund officials today urged the Obama Administration to put a hold on exploratory drilling that is scheduled to begin in the Arctic on July 1 until the cause of the ongoing catastrophe has been identified and new safeguards have been put in place.
Within the next two weeks, ships deployed by Shell Oil are scheduled to depart for the North Slope of Alaska, where they will begin exploratory drilling. The Deepwater Horizon rig was also doing exploratory drilling in the gulf before the catastrophic blowout that killed 11 workers and now threatens to devastate hundreds of miles of U.S. coastal areas. The U.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service is currently considering various proposals to place a moratorium on new off-shore drilling, but none of these would put a halt to Shell’s exploratory drilling in July.
“We’re asking President Obama and Interior Secretary Salazar to affirm that there will be no new drill bits sunk into U.S. waters until we understand what went wrong in the gulf, and can be certain it won’t happen in the Arctic,” said Tom Dillon, WWF’s senior vice president for field programs. “The Gulf of Mexico has every technology available to cope with an oil spill that is now threatening to cripple the economic and ecological health of the entire gulf region. By comparison, there is no adequate plan and even less equipment for responding to a blowout in the Arctic Ocean. It would be dangerously irresponsible to allow new drilling until we understand what went wrong in the gulf and have safeguards in place to protect the Arctic.”
As documented in the recent WWF report, “Not So Fast: US Ill-Prepared for Arctic Offshore Development,” the proposed drill sites are located up to 140 miles off-shore in an area notable for extreme storms, gale-force winds, moving sea ice, darkness and subzero temperatures. Such hostile conditions would make it difficult, if not impossible to mount a robust response effort in the event of a major oil spill, which could devastate an ecosystem which is home to a wide array of wildlife including walruses, fur seals and polar bears, and supports the livelihoods of native Alaskan communities.
“A spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a bit like having a heart attack in New York City where you have every known resource to try and fix it,” said William Eichbaum, WWF’s vice president of marine and arctic policy. “A spill in the Arctic is like having a heart attack at the North Pole. Unless Santa Claus shows up, you’re not going to get help anytime soon.”
Oil is highly toxic to marine and coastal environments and its impacts on wildlife can persist for decades, said WWF officials, noting that pools of oil can still be found from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Unless the well is capped soon, the gulf spill is set to surpass the Exxon Valdez this week in terms of the quantity of oil.
As the oil begins to flow into the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, hundreds of birds and marine species are at risk during what is a peak period for migratory birds and other wildlife. The area is a vital wintering or resting spot for nearly three quarters of America’s waterfowl, and is a major spawning area for the endangered Western Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. The gulf region also accounts for about half of U.S. shrimp and 40 percent of domestic oyster production, and a sustained spill is likely to put the regional economy at severe risk.
WWF officials also said the Gulf of Mexico spill provided a grim reminder that offshore drilling is not only dangerous, but is not the answer to America’s long-term energy needs.
“Developing more costly and dangerous offshore drilling projects makes no sense for our environment or our economy,” said Lou Leonard, director of US climate policy for WWF. “We have the technology today to shift to cleaner options for our cars and homes. But to make this happen, we must pass comprehensive climate legislation that puts a price on carbon and starts us on a path away from dirty, dangerous fossil fuels and toward clean energy jobs and solutions.”