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March 28, 2013

Nothing Funny About Shell Oil Disasters in America’s Arctic

Shell-Kulluk-oil-rigPhoto by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg/U.S. Coast Guard

By Stephen Dworkin, Sierra Club Media Intern

Shell’s incompetence in steering its own vessels through the Arctic would be comical, if it hadn’t put American workers in danger and exposed the irreplaceable Alaskan wild coast to the threat of a major oil spill—one that could rival Exxon-Valdez in scope and damage. There’s nothing funny about an oil slick that kills fish and the fishing industry, birds and the tourism revenue from bird-watchers, the health of the ocean and the health of local residents.

Shell’s blunders and retreat might not be comedic, but they are ironic. It was under pressure from Big Oil and its political allies that the Obama administration ended the offshore drilling moratorium it had reinstated after BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. The moratorium had originally been put into place by President George H.W. Bush in reaction to older spills which had threatened wildlife, water quality, and local economies, but it was rescinded by his son, President George W. Bush. Now, like a bad joke that won’t go away, these protections have been rescinded once again, and the oil industry’s promises that it could drill safely offshore have once again been broken.

For oil industry officials, the end of protections against the risks of offshore drilling was not enough; the president of the American Petroleum Institute voiced disappointment that the Obama administration hadn’t opened up additional areas to exploitation. Big Oil got its political favor of offshore drilling, but all the economy got were more crashed rigs and threats of leaks and spills. Shell managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and yet its lobbyists had the gall to complain that we didn’t expose more of our coastal economies, our waters and wildlife, to its whims.

The timing of Shell’s New Years Day crash is also significant. According to the company’s own admission, Shell was hightailing the Kulluk out of Alaskan waters when the rig ran aground in order to avoid a January 1 state tax assessment. This scheme illustrates a much broader truth about Big Oil: there is a gaping disconnect between oil industry profits and Americans’ economic prosperity. There can be no “trickle-down” to working families or local and state governments when it’s standard practice to risk oil spills in order to evade taxes.

No polluting industry should ever be granted the kind of leeway that the United States has historically granted oil. Frankly, there’s no reason to believe more explosions and crashes wouldn’t have occurred if Shell had stayed in the Arctic, and there’s no reason to believe any other oil company, each with its own record of deadly and destructive mishaps and neglect, would perform any differently. Nobody should be allowed to drill in such a fragile and priceless area, and the rest of America’s coastline should be protected as well.

The Obama administration has begun taking steps to hold Big Oil accountable, including remaking the regulatory industry in charge of overseeing offshore drilling and replacing its director. But in order to make good on the President’s promise to tackle the climate crisis—as well as protect American families, businesses, and wildlife from the economic and health consequences of oil spills—the administration must do more.

The Obama administration ought to heed the 500,000 Americans and numerous organizations, including the Sierra Club, who have called for an end to offshore drilling until, through intensive reviews and stringent enforcement of tough standards, we can evaluate as a country whether Shell and its companions should ever be allowed to take advantage of America’s coasts again.

Letting Shell back into the Arctic? Now, that idea should have us all laughing.

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