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Questions for Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar


On October 3, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced that the agency has filed the Record of Decision regarding a 2008 federal oil and natural gas lease sale in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, affirming the sale of 487 leases covering 2.8 million acres under Lease Sale 193 to oil and gas companies.

The decision, opposed by many environmental groups, was a major step forward for the oil company Shell as it seeks to drill in the icy waters off the North Slope of Alaska, as well as for other companies, Conoco Phillips and Stat Oil, that bid on the 2008 leases.

America’s Arctic Ocean is a critical ecosystem, home to many species of wildlife, including polar bears, ice seals, walrus, and beluga whales. Some Inupiat people of Alaska’s Arctic coast refer to the Arctic Ocean as a “garden” because of the resources it provides their community. Dozens of environmental groups and many Arctic residents are concerned that Shell, or any other oil company, which plans to conduct exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in 2012, will be unable to adequately respond to an oil spill in these remote and ice-choked waters. Additionally, environmentalists point to the lack of available science needed to inform management agencies about potential impacts of drilling in that region and the lack of a comprehensive, consistent, public process and clear standards to make decisions based on that information.

United States Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is scheduled to address the upcoming Society of Environmental Journalists Conference in Miami, Florida on October 19th. Because you or your organization may be attending the conference or covering Secretary Salazar’s work, we wanted to provide some unanswered questions, along with background information, with the hope that you will be able to successfully raise these questions with the Secretary:

1. Secretary Salazar, is the Department of the Interior committed to making decisions in the Arctic based on sound science and can you discuss how that commitment played out in your decision earlier this month to proceed with oil and gas exploration in America’s Arctic?

In July 2010, a federal district court in Alaska ruled that the federal government had unlawfully failed to address the absence of basic scientific data in the Arctic Ocean in the lease sale’s environmental analyses. The court directed the BOEM, which was then known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, to revise the analyses and reconsider the lease sale decision. However, earlier this month, BOEM affirmed the lease sale without requiring that important scientific information be gathered and proven methods for cleaning up an Arctic oil spill be developed.

2. Mr. Secretary, what was your rationale for determining that the U.S. Geological Survey’s findings concerning the lack of science behind Lease Sale 193 were “beyond the scope of the BOEM mission” when pursuing further action on Lease Sale 193?

The decision concerning Chukchi Lease Sale 193 was inconsistent with a recent report from top scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey – a report commissioned by Salazar, ostensibly to guide offshore oil drilling decisions off the North Slope of Alaska. The report confirmed that there is enough important missing information about the area’s unique marine environment that it presents a “major constraint to a defensible science framework for critical Arctic decision making.” Subsequently, BOEM dismissed the report as “beyond the scope of the BOEM mission” and determined that no missing information is essential to the decision to open the Chukchi Sea to oil drilling.

3. Did recent spills in icy Norwegian waters factor into BOEM’s decision to affirm lease sales off the north slope of Alaska?

Earlier this year, an oil company learned just how hard it is to clean-up oil in icy waters. In February 2011, a cargo ship ran aground just outside of Oslo, Norway, spilt up to 500 tons of fuel oil into the fjord’s icy waters. Norwegian authorities attempted to contain the spill, but the presence of ice complicated the efforts, and currents spread the oil as much as 100 kilometers up the coast.

4. By affirming Chukchi Lease Sale 193 your Departmenttook a position contrary to one that President Obama held in the U.S. Senate. How do you explain the 180 degree change in position?

Senator Salazar was a key, early, and influential supporter of his U.S. Senate colleague Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and he travelled the country explaining his positions, much as he now does as Secretary of the Interior. During the campaign, Senator Obama was asked, “Given that the polar bear is increasingly imperiled by global warming and the melting of sea ice, would you allow drilling in its habitat [in the Chukchi Sea, off the Alaska coast]? He replied: “No. I support the efforts of Senator John Kerry and my other colleagues in the Senate to prohibit drilling in the Chukchi Sea.”

5. Shouldn’t oil companies prove that they can clean up their messes before exposing the Arctic Ocean’s people and wildlife to both the commonplace and the potentially disastrous impacts of oil drilling? 

Several independent reports have found that if a major oil spill happened in the Arctic today, it would be impossible to clean it up much of the time, and research indicates that a clean-up would not be possible 44 to 84 percent of the short Arctic drilling season. For the remaining seven or eight months of the year, during the ice-covered winter, no spill cleanup would be possible given environmental conditions such as winds, waves, temperature, visibility and daylight. Even BOEM Director Michael Bromwich confirmed that “spill response is a question.” Similarly, Admiral Robert Papp, the top officer at the U.S. Coast Guard told Congress that if the Deepwater Horizon disaster “were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we’d have nothing.

6. Will your Department take into account the records of companies like Shell with respect to oil spills around the world when weighing the companies’ proposed oil spill response plans for the Arctic?  

Shell’s drilling in the world's third largest wetland in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, turned it into one of the most oil-polluted places on Earth with more than 6,800 recorded oil spills, accounting for anywhere from 9 million to 13 million barrels of oil spilled. A landmark United Nations Environmental Programme report, concluded that restoration of the Niger Delta region could take up to $1 billion and 30 years and amount to the world's largest-ever cleanup operation.

In addition, in August, an oil leak from a Shell platform in the North Sea earned the distinction of the worst spill in UK waters for more than ten years. Despite assurances from the company that the leak was “under control”, oil continued to flow days after Shell was first alerted to the problem. It was the second leak linked to the platform in just over two years.

a) What steps, if any, would you require Shell to take to prevent a public health catastrophe like the one that occurred in Nigeria?

In Nigeria, some areas that appeared unaffected at the surface were in reality severely contaminated underground. For example, in at least 10 Ogoni communities, contaminated water has seriously threatened public health, and in one community, at Nisisioken Ogale, families are drinking water from wells contaminated with benzene, a carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines.