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Beaufort Sea spill could be worse

President Roosevelt used to praise the Audubon Society for “work of incalculable good in stirring, rousing and giving effect” to wildlife conservation, especially in the Arctic region of Alaska.
Audubon is at this work still, speaking up for native people and wildlife along the Arctic shore. The Shell Oil Co., securing leases for off-shore drilling there in 2005, now has received permits from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Environmental Protection Agency to begin oil exploration next year in the Beaufort Sea.
Bloomberg Businessweek headlined as “Tiny Alaska village stares down big oil” a legal challenge against the government in the matter, aided by Audubon and other national environmental groups.
The Inupiat villagers opposed the drilling plans, first approved in 2008, before now. The Arctic ocean and shore are “our garden,” they had argued in court. Its food web sustained their subsistence culture for thousands of years and could be severely damaged by oil activities, they fear. A federal court, noting that environmental impacts had not been properly examined, especially for possible oil spills, had blocked the drilling.
Inadequate spill prevention by BP and lack of regulatory oversight caused disastrous spillage, 4.9 million barrels of crude oil, into the Gulf of Mexico last year. It fouled coast lines in four states even as tens of thousands of emergency workers sought desperately to contain the pest.
Six weeks and 5,800 dead sea birds, turtles and marine mammals laters, a brew of chemicals sprayed on the surface, in volumes never used before and their effects on life in the ocean unknown, dispersed the oil into small droplets and let them sink out of sight. In the Gulf’s warm water, so the hope, marine microbes will decompose and make the oil harmless. Plugging the oil stream took nearly two months longer.
In the Beaufort Sea, the drilling would occur even nearer to shore than BP’s in the Gulf, as close as 16 miles, and less than 20 miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Key migration routes of bowhead and beluga whales would be at risk, ringed and bearded and spotted seals, over 60 species of fish and millions of migratory birds which raise their young in the tundra. So would be polar bear denning habitat and, in a broad sense, the food and culture of Alaskan native communities.
A Coast Guard official, in Congressional testimony, described as “zero” the federal government’s spill response capability in the Arctic. Mechanical cleanup efforts are impossible during most of the year, and possible only 20 to 50 percent of the time during the short summer season.
BP’s oil recapture in the Gulf, under far easier conditions, was 5 percent. On the basis of computer simulations, Shell Oil projects a 90 percent oil recovery in a worst-case spill.
The “Point of Hope” name of that tiny Arctic shore village, may it be prophetic in forestalling imminent drilling in the Beaufort Sea until the current president demands better cleanup and prevention plans.