Cousteau: Obama can still prevent an Arctic catastrophe


Seattle Times Op-Ed by Alexandra Cousteau

President Obama should use his upcoming trip to Alaska to press for enhanced safeguards for the Arctic Ocean.

OCEANS connect our world. More than 70 percent of the planet is covered by ocean waters, and those waters are an integral part of our economies, cultures and food supply.

Yet human impacts, including acidification, noise, oil spills and habitat disruption endanger the world’s oceans. As a species, however, we are not helpless against these dangers to our important aquatic resources. Meaningful action to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, protect important places from risky industrial activities and move toward renewable sources of energy would go a long way to ensuring that future generations have healthy ocean ecosystems.

The Arctic Ocean exemplifies this urgent need for change and we must act now. North of Alaska, the Arctic Ocean is one the last intact ecosystems largely untouched by large-scale industrial activity. It supports vibrant communities whose residents have depended on the ocean for millennia and it is home to majestic animals, such as bowhead whales, polar bears, walrus and ice seals.

The Arctic is also increasingly threatened. Climate change is causing the Arctic region to warm faster than anywhere else on Earth, and factors like low salinity make the Arctic Ocean especially susceptible to acidification. On top of these changes, receding sea ice is making the region increasingly available for industrialization. Shipping and oil and gas exploration bring with them pollution and the risk of a major oil spill.

As I write this, Shell has mounted yet another effort to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. The company’s last try, in 2012, resulted in mishaps, fines, government investigations and, of course, the grounding of its drill rig, the Kulluk. Investigators blamed Shell’s problems in large measure on the company’s failure to appreciate or mitigate the risks inherent in operating in one of the most remote and dangerous places on Earth.

This year, Shell submitted plans that did not comply with important protections for walrus — then tried to get the government to create an exception to those protections. It had problems during testing of its containment dome: the same dome that was famously “crushed like a beer can” in tests in Puget Sound in 2012. And, most recently, one of the company’s icebreakers suffered a 3-foot gash in its hull transiting known shallow waters when a safer route was available.

These problems add to the reality that neither Shell nor any other company is prepared to respond to a spill in icy Arctic waters. Five years ago, we watched as the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 people and causing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil to pour into the Gulf of Mexico uncontrolled over 87 days. That catastrophe occurred in warm waters, close to response infrastructure. A spill in the Arctic would be a thousand miles from the nearest Coast Guard facilities in a region with high winds, waves, darkness and ice. Response would be impossible.

All of this — and yet the government has granted Shell new approvals to drill exploration wells. It is hard for me to reconcile that choice with President Obama’s stated commitments to protecting our oceans and to addressing climate change. The president, though, has a unique opportunity to chart a new course for the Arctic. He will be traveling to Alaska at the end of August as part of the kickoff to the United States’ chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The administration has started on the right track in establishing action to address climate change and ocean acidification as a priority for the U.S. chairmanship of the council.

Moving forward, we need bold action for the Arctic Ocean. The government should not feel beholden to poorly planned, multibillion-dollar investments made by oil companies. Instead, choices about whether to allow risky oil and gas activities must be made in the broader context of the need to address climate change, protect the Arctic, and plan for the future.

I hope that the president’s visit to Alaska will begin this broader conversation. After all, if we don’t act now to protect the Arctic Ocean, we might not get another chance.