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Potential Impacts on the Arctic from Oil and Gas Drilling

Layla Hughes, Senior Program Officer for Arctic Oil and Gas Policy in WWF's Alaska office, explains why we are working to stop drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic.

Why is WWF concerned about drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic?
LH: Oil spills are difficult to contain, even under the best of circumstances. Cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was—and still is—challenging.

Responding to a spill in the Arctic would be even harder. The area of the U.S. Arctic where oil companies want to drill is in the remote, ice-covered waters of Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas—an area known for extreme storms, gale-force winds, moving sea ice, sub-zero temperatures and darkness. Such hostile conditions would make it difficult, if not impossible, to mount a robust response effort in the event of a major oil spill.

Looking at the weather data over the past 20 years in the nearby Canadian Beaufort Sea, there is an average of only 40 days a year when a clean-up could be attempted. It would be dangerous and irresponsible for the federal government to allow new drilling until we have safeguards in place to protect the Arctic’s wildlife and communities—both at the heart of WWF’s mission.

What wildlife in the Arctic would suffer the most from oil and gas development?
LH: Many marine mammals and fish species would suffer, if not die. One reason is because these species depend on sound to survive. Vision is limited in the great darkness of the deep sea where sound travels fast, far and efficiently. The sounds they depend on to travel, find food and mate would be drowned out by oil exploration and drilling. Whales and other marine mammals have died from exposure to the traumatic impacts of loud underwater noise, including seismic testing.

Oil and gas operations would also release many tons of harmful pollutants into the air and discharge dangerous chemicals into the water, thereby degrading the clean air and water that the polar bears, whales, and walrus depend on to survive.

Would people be impacted too?
LH: Yes. Just one drilling project can increase levels of nitrogen dioxide to unsafe levels. This can lead to breathing problems—such as asthma—especially among older people and children.

What still needs to happen to ensure that the Arctic’s wildlife and communities are protected?
LH: The Arctic is one of the last great treasures on Earth and an oil spill would be difficult to contain in such a remote place. Oil and gas development should not be allowed in the Arctic but if this type of development does proceed, where it happens is crucial. The most important and sensitive places for Arctic wildlife must be protected.

Also, there must be a science-based and transparent decision-making process about when to allow oil and gas drilling. A recent study looked at how often response is possible in the Arctic and found that in the months of September and October, no response at all is possible for a large majority of the time. After October, the ocean freezes over and no response is possible until the following summer.

It could be months before response equipment would get into the region, with oil flowing unchecked beneath the ice all winter and spring. Drilling should be restricted to the summer months to reduce the risk of a blowout that continues throughout the winter. The U.S. government recently imposed exactly this kind of restriction for drilling in the summer of 2012 in the Chukchi Sea.

We need to ensure that there is the capacity to respond to a drilling disaster. Currently we don’t have adequate equipment, people, or training in the Arctic to respond to a spill. We also don’t have accurate estimates of the amount of oil that can be recovered by the equipment that does exist. Our laws need to be strengthened to ensure that Arctic-specific response equipment and plans exist in case a blowout occurs.

How You Can Help

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