To the people of the Arctic coast, the images from the Gulf are foremost in their mind as they wonder how long it will be until their pristine Arctic experiences a devastating spill. True, Shell’s drilling – expected to start next summer – will be in shallow water with an average depth of 160 feet, compared to the 5,000 feet of the Gulf disaster. But the Arctic’s extreme conditions and remoteness bring challenges and obstacles that are unknown in Gulf.
Shell maintains it will be able to clean up 95 percent of any oil spilled in the Arctic using mechanical recovery. Yet this rate of success has never come close to being achieved – anywhere. In the Deepwater Horizon spill, the mechanical recovery rate was close to 3 percent. With the Exxon Valdez, it was 8 percent.
Robert Thompson, who lives in Kaktovik, a small Inupiat community on the coast of the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea – where Shell got provisional approval to drill – believes that Shell’s drilling plans must have been approved by people who don’t know the Arctic. Even in the summer months, conditions can be so foreboding that it wouldn’t be possible to mount an oil-spill response effort.
A recent report for the Canadian government reinforces this point. In the Canadian Beaufort Sea, conditions (precluding sea ice) in June – the tamest month on the Arctic calendar – would keep spill response efforts from being launched 20 percent of the time. September and October? Forget about it. Despite this, Shell plans call for drilling beginning in July and continuing through Oct. 31.