In a report released Monday, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is urging the government to hold off on approving Royal Dutch Shell's plans for Arctic drilling until more information can be gathered about the project's environmental effects on the region.
Threats to wildlife and native villagers, as well as the unpredictability surrounding Arctic oil-spill cleanups, should give the Interior Department pause about letting Shell go ahead with drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the NRDC report says.
“It is critical that Shell proceed cautiously. There is almost no margin for error as the Arctic is transformed,” the NRDC report says. “New and risky industrial activities should not begin until Arctic ecosystems are sufficiently protected; a comprehensive system of marine sanctuaries should be established, and careful scientific study and assessment needs to produce convincing evidence that any new industrial activities pose little threat to the environment.”
NRDC worries that if Shell finds oil, it will ignite a rush by other firms to the Arctic before necessary environmental protections are in place.
The group contends oil-spill cleanup would be more difficult in those waters than in warmer climates. The Shell project's proximity to the sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a complicated ecosystem, and villagers that depend on it also warrant more thorough study, NRDC says.
The group also argues that the region already is undergoing significant changes from global warming. NRDC says expanding oil-and-gas drilling would accelerate greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate such shifts. The report says data shows sea ice surface area has declined 12 percent per decade over the last 30 years, leading to the most open water ever documented.
“Nowhere on Earth has climate change had so much impact. In recent decades, temperatures in the region have increased almost twice as fast as the world average,” the report said. “Extensive coastal erosion is forcing whole villages to relocate.”
Shell is waiting on a piece of safety equipment that it needs to begin its Arctic operation.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said last week that “time is short” for Shell to begin its project this year, with mid-September just weeks away.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the Senate’s top Republican on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has said Interior should consider pushing that deadline back if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revises its estimate for when sea ice will return.
But Michael Bromwich, the attorney who led an overhaul of Interior’s deepwater drilling oversight following the 2010 BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, recently said drilling plans in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas were composed on a “historical timeline” and based on “reason and fact.” He said Interior should exercise caution when called to reconsider the drilling schedule in those waters.
Republicans have been adamant about drilling in the Arctic, saying that tapping oil-and-gas reserves will provide cheap energy to boost the economy. The GOP has also cited Russia's moves to aggressively expand production in the region and expressed concerns American companies could be left out of the boom.
The House passed a five-year offshore drilling plan in July that would expedite drilling in the Arctic compared to President Obama’s plan. Democrats dismissed that plan as election-year grandstanding and noted that Obama’s five-year plan does not require congressional approval.
-- This post was updated at 1:20 p.m.