The popular narrative in regard to the BP oil spill doesn’t make much of a problem with the fact that oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico at tremendous rates, but rather the fact that BP was largely unprepared to stop and clean it up. The question of whether or not offshore drilling is worth the trouble is a debate that has been decidedly left off the table by anyone in a position to do something about it.
And given the global addiction to fossil fuels, this isn’t all that surprising. While we’re exploring for a cleaner, safer alternative, we can’t readily swear off oil altogether.
But it’s unsatisfactory for me to say that the lesson we’ll eventually learn from this oil spill is that next time the response will be faster, or that next time there will be greater controls in place to reduce the impact on the environment and our communities. It avoids the fact that the consequences of such a spill are so great and irreversible that we can’t really afford to have "the next one."
Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction we’re headed in. In a move to get in good with the notoriously accommodating folks over at Minerals Management Service, who will be under much more scrutiny and pressure following the Gulf spill, Shell wrote them a letter to assuage any fears they might have about the oil giant’s future plans– specifically a controversial drilling project off the coast of Alaska (emphasis mine):
Responding to a federal request to increase safety measures for its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, Shell Oil on Monday vowed an “unprecedented” response in the event of an oil spill, including staging a pre-made dome in Alaska for use in trying to contain any leaking well.
As the Obama Administration reviews the safety and environmental risks of offshore oil drilling after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the fate of the pending Shell project in Alaska looms more urgently. Shell has received initial permits and hopes to begin exploratory drilling this summer. Yet the project, which would be the first offshore drilling in Alaska in many years, still requires final permits and could be delayed.
Environmentalists and Native Alaskan groups that have long worked to stop the project have seized on the Gulf spill to emphasize risks in the Alaska project. The drill sites, far out in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, are in some of the most remote and frigid waters of North America, with ice forming much of the year, endangered whales and other animals living in the area and little onshore support in the event of a spill.
In a letter sent to the head of the Minerals Management Service, S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, Shell’s president, Marvin E. Odum, said Shell the dome it would have ready would “take into consideration issues with hydrate formation.”
Shell also said it would be ready to apply dispersal agents below water “at the source of any oil flow” after “all necessary permits are acquired.”
The company also said it would work to prevent a spill from happening, including refining how it drills, increasing the frequency of inspections of its blowout preventer to 7 days from 14 – the blowout preventer failed in the Gulf spill – and adding a remote underwater vehicle nearby that would be capable of working on the blowout preventer.
I suppose it’s marginally comforting to hear an oil company publicly recognize the importance of safety measures and spill prevention. But it does nothing to address the fundamental problem that this drilling is so exploratory, so potentially dangerous and so irreparably destructive in the event of an accident that perhaps it’s just not a good idea in the first place.
There’s something seriously wrong when we accept that oil spills are facts of life and that our concerns should instead rest on how effective and coordinated the response should be.
As long as that’s the pervasive narrative, you can bet that future drilling accidents will forever be apologized for with reassurances for "next time."
But just how many more "next times" do we have left?