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The Arctic Myth | Commentary

By Randall Luthi America’s economic future depends on energy. I have often been critical of Congress and the Obama administration for not doing enough to secure our energy future, but I am pleased to give credit where credit is due. The administration got it right with the recent announcement from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management conditionally approving Shell’s Application for Permit to Drill in the Chukchi Sea. Predictably, however, the announcement triggered a torrent of teeth gnashing, including a short-sighted and alarmist letter written by 18 senators from the president’s own party and the ranting and raving of extreme environmental groups about the destruction of the Arctic due to oil and gas exploration.  

It’s well past time to take a close look at the Arctic Myth that this group of senators and others are continuing to put forward as fact, all too often without critical examination by the news media.
These extremists claim there is not enough information to chart a course for safe and prudent development of oil and natural gas in the Arctic “frontier.” In fact, Canada, Norway and Russia have all been safely increasing their exploration activities in Arctic areas for some time. Technology has, and continues to be, developed to deal with areas covered with ice, high tides, low temperatures and ice flows. Federal regulators, and ice and safety experts, working in concert with industry officials, will create the safest conditions possible as U.S. finally joins in Arctic exploration.  

Opponents of Arctic exploration also claim that there isn’t enough known about the currents, baseline environmental conditions, marine and aquatic life. The truth is that the Alaskan offshore has decades of studies looking at nearly every aspect of the Arctic seascape. The Federal government has spent millions of dollars and the oil and natural gas industry has financed volumes of studies that identify the current patterns, the changing ice flow, the abundance of bi-valves and crustaceans, subsistence use, the travel patterns and numbers of bow head whales, seals, fish, walrus and polar bears.  

There have also been extensive studies on how to best contain and clean up oil in the unlikely event of any accidental release in an Arctic environment. But as evidenced in their letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, this group of senators prefer to pretend this knowledge and expertise doesn’t matter, because there are not enough response and clean up vessels and equipment in the Arctic. It is correct that there is currently no fleet of response and containment vessels stationed in the Beaufort or Chukchi Sea. That’s because there are no oil and natural gas operations in the Beaufort or Chukchi Sea. As part of the permitting process, Shell must supply the necessary response and containment vessels. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard has been working on plans for the concurrent deployment of their necessary emergency equipment.  

The most blatant falsehood being peddled in relationship to this situation is that the government has predicted that there is a 75 percent chance of an oil spill. Even the regulators are taken aback by this mis-characterization. BOEM regulators have pointed out that that they use the 75 percent number is a worst-case scenario based on development of 500 wells over a 77-year period. The Obama administration is proposing approval for just four exploratory wells.
I don’t mean to imply that there is zero risk. However, any minute risk need to be weighed against the Arctic’s potential contribution to U.S. and international energy security and reliability. The Energy Information Administration predicts that in 2040, more than 85 percent of the U.S. energy will still come from traditional fuels – coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear. Oil and natural gas will continue to play a major role for years to come. Reliable supplies will be necessary to keep the world’s economy and living standards growing. The Arctic, and particularly the U.S. Arctic, can help supply that need for the country and the world.
Rather than acting to undermine a reasoned approach to energy development, these senators and their colleagues in both houses should be working to correct the Arctic Myth and to make offshore energy resources there and elsewhere more accessible to exploration and production.  

Randall Luthi is the president of the National Ocean Industries Association.

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