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Environmental, Cost Concerns Drive Arctic Oil Exploration Reticence

“I think there are major questions about whether and when in the next few years there will be any offshore Arctic activity,” said Michael Bromwich, a former Interior Department regulator who managed a major overhaul of its offshore energy agencies after the Deepwater Horizon spill, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. And Shell’s problems don’t even address the larger question, he said, “of whether we are really ready.”

An Icy Environment

While much is known about how oil behaves in ice-covered seas and how spills can be mitigated, the National Research Council said in its report that more studies should be conducted in real-world conditions to validate current and emerging spill response technologies. The study’s authors recommended “carefully planned and controlled field releases” to study the oil’s behavior.

Obtaining a permit to deliberately dump oil into open waters is understandably difficult — the last one was in the early 1990s — but the federal government is showing interest in field releases.

The research council report also notes that one spill response method that may be a viable option in some situations is to do nothing. But the prospect of any oil release into the Arctic beyond natural seeps is anathema to environmental groups, who say the report represents further proof that oil companies are not ready to do business at the top of the world.

“Having yet more evidence that we are not ready to move forward safely, will the government and companies continue their blind leap into the offshore Arctic oil and gas race?” Chris Krenz, Arctic campaign manager and senior scientist for Oceana, said in a statement.

Regardless of U. S. oil exploration, Obama administration officials say the United States must assert its influence in a region shared by seven other countries, including Russia.

“We have to think about not only how our actions affect our resources here domestically, but also how we can make sure that we’re taking a leadership role internationally,” said Chris Smith, principal deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy at the Energy Department. “And for the Arctic, that point is particularly important.”

The current federal regulatory environment is “significantly better” at preventing accidents than before Deepwater Horizon, Bromwich said, but the government cannot rely on tough rule-makings alone. “We have to look at things squarely,” he said, “and recognize that we will never, ever reduce the risk to zero.”

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