We Don't Need Another Oil Disaster

This month marks the 23rd anniversary of the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. When the Valdez ran aground, more than 11 million gallons of oil gushed out into the fragile eco-system of the sound and onto the nearby beaches. The oil covered 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean, killing hundreds of thousands of birds, fish, seals, and other wildlife – not to mention the damage it inflicted on local villages and communities and the devastation it caused the region’s fishing and seafood industry.

There was a massive cleanup after the Valdez spill, but there remain significant lingering effects from the oil still today.

The Exxon Valdez disaster illustrated not only the risks of offshore drilling, but also the difficulty of cleaning up a spill in Arctic conditions. After weeks of effort and several failed attempts Exxon was only able to clean up a small amount of the oil in the Alaska’s remote and harsh environment.

Two decades, and many “advances in technology” later BP was only able to clean up about 3 percent of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.  Sub-zero temperatures, shifting ice floes, storms with hurricane force winds and 20 foot waves ensure that a spill in the Arctic today remains impossible to handle. Oil spill response still won’t even work in the Arctic during much of the year.

This spill’s ruinous and enduring impacts, which the industry had assured could be prevented, should give pause to the Obama administration, which recently approved an oil spill response plan for Shell’s proposal to drill in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea. That approval puts Shell one step closer to drilling in the pristine Arctic waters of the Polar Bear Seas.

The nearest Coast Guard station to the area Shell wants to drill is more than 1,000 miles away. There are also huge knowledge gaps in scientific understanding about life in the Arctic waters and the potential impacts of drilling. The Chukchi is the Arctic’s westernmost sea. It supports approximately one-tenth of the world’s remaining polar bear population and is an important migration route for endangered bowhead and beluga whales.

The Arctic is home to more than just rich scenery and stunning wildlife. For the indigenous Inupiat people, the region sustains a way of life. They rely on subsistence hunting of the land and sea for caribou, moose, whales, walrus, seals, and ducks, as well as salmon and berries, for their food. Their traditional whaling practice dates back thousands of years and forms the center of their diet and culture.

Big Oil’s dismal spill record belies their continued assurance of safety. The unproven technology proposed in Shell’s plan will not protect the irreplaceable scenery and wildlife of the Polar Bear Seas. Shell and other oil companies should not be allowed to move forward with risky, dangerous plans to drill in this pristine area.

Meanwhile – what is Shell’s response to all this controversy over their spill response plan (or lack thereof)? They’re suing the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations.

Shell can’t sue all of the millions of Americans who oppose Arctic drilling, and we won’t be intimidated. Join us – Tell Shell that you stand with us for the Polar Bear Seas of America’s Arctic by posting a picture of yourself telling Shell to sue you, too.

Then if you want to learn even more about how amazing and how threatened the Arctic is, join us in watching the Discovery Channel’s new series Frozen Planet. This miniseries takes viewers to both poles, bringing us face-to-face with the wild beauty of these amazing places. The Sierra Club is partnering with Discovery to promote the show by getting the public to house parties where they can watch the first episode and then take action.

House parties will take place between March 15 and March 31, the weeks around the Frozen Planet premier. Find one near you so you can watch this amazing show and then sign postcards to President Obama, asking him to protect America’s Arctic.

We should not entrust the future of one of our last great wild places, and the communities that rely on it for subsistence, to Big Oil. President Obama should permanently protect the wonders of the Polar Bear Seas, not open them to drilling that will only deepen our addiction to oil.

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