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Hit the pause button on Arctic drilling

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The Arctic Ocean is subject to some of the most volatile weather patterns on the planet. Geologists believe it also contains vast undersea oil and gas reserves.

Last year, the Arctic's ice cover shrank to the lowest levels in recorded history and, not coincidentally, Royal Dutch Shell received the first permits in decades to begin prospecting for oil and gas in federal waters north of Alaska's wilderness.

Developers and the Obama administration assured us these operations would be safe, thanks to strict oversight and new technology. Now it seems this optimism was misplaced. Unfortunately for Shell and other oil producers seeking to exploit the region, the company's best efforts were met with multiple failures.

We were open to offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic provided oil companies and the government could impose adequate safeguards, ensure sufficient response capacity and develop a deeper understanding of how oil behaves in ice and freezing water. Now, following a series of mishaps and errors, as well as overwhelming weather conditions, it has become clear there is no safe and responsible way to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean.

The most recent calamity occurred when Shell's drilling rig, the Kulluk, slipped its cables as it was being towed and ended up on the shore of a small, uninhabited island near Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska. It has since been salvaged and towed to a nearby harbour so engineers can assess the damage.

Last week, announcing the beginning of an internal review of the Arctic drilling program, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar admitted he "never felt comfortable" with Shell's efforts and added, "it may be that Shell isn't even ready to move forward with drilling in 2013."

He should take that statement a step further. The Obama administration shouldn't issue any new permits to Shell this year and should suspend all action on other companies' applications to drill in this remote and unpredictable region.

A suspension of operations would be a major blow to Shell, which has spent about $5 billion to prepare and commence drilling. But the oil giant has only itself to blame.

Shell promised that technological advances, combined with the expertise and experience of its engineers and operators, would allow it to handle even the harshest weather conditions. Yet it has become clear the best Shell's money can buy just isn't good enough.

A February 2012 report by the Center for American Progress detailed the glaring lack of spill-response infrastructure in the Arctic and the absence of scientific data about how cleanup could be undertaken. There are no major roads, railroads or ports close to Shell's operations on Alaska's North Slope. There aren't adequate hotels or shoreside facilities to house and feed the army of responders a cleanup would require. And the closest permanent Coast Guard installation is more than 1,600 kilometres away.

A report released in February by the Government Accountability Office identified a wide range of logistical, technical and environmental obstacles associated with Arctic offshore drilling. It concluded that even Shell's best-laid plans "do not completely mitigate some of the environmental and logistical risks associated with the remoteness and environment of the region."

Throughout 2012, these warnings were borne out. Over the summer, in a mishap that portended the Kulluk's grounding, Shell lost control of its other rig, the Noble Discoverer, near Dutch Harbor in Alaska's Aleutian Island chain. That rig drifted within 100 metres of shore.

Then, Shell's oil-spill-response barge repeatedly failed to receive Coast Guard certification, delaying the start of operations.

And its containment dome -- a critical piece of response equipment required after the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- failed catastrophically during testing in the Puget Sound, prompting regulators to describe it as having been "crushed like a beer can" in those relatively calm and temperate waters.

With each new fiasco, the array of voices raising concerns about preparedness has grown broader. These now include Lloyd's of London, the German bank West LB, and the French oil company Total, which announced it wouldn't seek to drill in the Arctic because an accident there would be a "disaster."

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2012 was by far the hottest year on record in the continental U.S. As the climate warms, the Arctic Ocean will surely have more open water than ever before, allowing access to untapped reserves of fossil fuels.

But just because we can access them doesn't mean we can safely extract them. The Obama administration should hit the pause button on Arctic offshore drilling with relatively little damage done.

Carol Browner, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and served as director of the White House office of energy and climate change policy under President Barack Obama. John Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress, was chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton.

-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2013 A10

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