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Could Arctic Oil Exploration Be Made Safe?

Surging energy prices are renewing calls to open highly sensitive Arctic areas to oil exploration. One condition of access should be greater public oversight.

When it comes to environmental protection, the energy industry likes to operate on the Titanic principle--accidents can’t happen, but if they do, we know how to manage them. But accidents can and do happen. The 2002 Gaz Diamond spill in Puget Sound, the Louisiana spill of 2000, the one in Rhode Island in 1996, and the Tampa Bay barge collision in 1993 are just a few examples of accidents in the U.S. alone.

Sometimes the impacts and the management of spills are disastrous: for example, the Black Sea spill of 2007, or the Prestige spill off the coast of Spain in 2002. And of course there is the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, which alone cost Exxon $3.5 billion in fines and penalties, another half-a-billion in punitive damages, to say nothing of the damage to its reputation.

Oil spills in icy seas of the north are difficult to spot, difficult to contain, difficult to clean up and difficult for nature to heal. In the Arctic, the hazards are especially severe. Visibility may be zero, ice is everywhere, storms blow often, and oil workers are frequently exhausted from the harsh conditions.

Politicians and the public are well aware of the risks. President George H.W. Bush established a presidential moratorium on offshore drilling in 1990, and Congress presides over a separate moratorium that has been renewed every year since its inception in 1981.

Now, some politicians and corporate interests want to lift the moratorium, opening the way to drilling in the American Arctic. Other countries are also opening up their Arctic waters, including Russia and Norway. They argue that better technology has reduced the environmental risks to manageable levels.

Perhaps. But at a minimum, we should stand firm on the operating principle established by President Reagan: trust, but verify. Let no offshore drilling take place in public waters without public monitoring. Establish a website where the public can see around the clock what is happening at current and future drilling and production sites. Add pipeline and tanker activities. Get started before the wave of development gets going and let the entire Arctic be covered, to ensure a level playing field.

No technological break-through is required, just a political and collaborative one. A big problem requires a big solution.

The oil companies do not like public monitoring--and none are asking for it--but they should. Public monitoring would reduce the inclination to cut corners with respect to safety. It would help discover spills more quickly (should they occur) and monitor their effects. No less important, it will restore public trust. If the risks are as manageable as the energy companies say, they ought to be asking for public monitoring as a condition of access to environmentally sensitive areas.

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