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Chukchi Sea Lease Sale Is a Risky Fix for Our Oil Addiction

by Rick Steiner

Beyond the ritualistic pageantry of the Chukchi Sea oil and gas lease sale Wednesday in Anchorage, the event exposed a worrisome new phase in our addiction to oil. We are at the desperate stage where we are accepting more and more risk to get the next fix.

The federal Minerals Management Service leased millions of acres of the Chukchi shelf Wednesday to oil companies. Because the area may hold over 30 billion barrels of oil and gas equivalent (larger than Prudhoe Bay), the sale was an oil industry feeding-frenzy netting the government $2.6 billion.

But set against this offshore oil rush is the virtual certainty of long-term environmental and social harm. Oil drilling cannot be done safely in the Arctic offshore ecosystem. The government estimates more than a 50 percent chance -- a probability -- of a major oil spill from these leases. There is little possibility of effective spill response in these ice-covered seas.

The impacts of a major spill in the Chukchi will be widespread, long lasting and disastrous. At risk are endangered whales, polar bears, seals, walruses, birds, fish and the Inupiat people's maritime subsistence culture. Beyond a major spill, even normal industry operations such as seismic surveys, vessel traffic, aircraft, offshore and onshore pipeline construction, offshore rig emplacement and onshore facilities will have significant and unavoidable impacts on the region.

Industry's claim that it has a good safety record offshore is simply not true. Several spills from offshore platforms have been as large or larger than the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill -- the Ekofisk in the North Sea, Ixtoc in the Gulf of Mexico, Funiwa No. 5 off Nigeria, among many other offshore disasters.

And government oversight seems to have broken down here too. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has blown the whistle on how the Alaska region of the MMS allowed politics to override science and force leasing decisions. Similar allegations have been raised in several lawsuits filed recently by Alaska Native and environmental groups.

The government would be wise to just set the $2.6 billion aside for now, as those lawsuits are still pending and several bills in Congress would invalidate the sale altogether. The next administration in Washington, D.C., should return the money to the bidders and prohibit petroleum development there permanently.

Oil and gas lease development in the Chukchi Sea would irreparably harm one of our planet's most unique ecoregions. But according to the current federal administration, that's OK. It's all "in the public interest."

This reflects a new and very troubling desperation in modern society. That we are willing to intentionally inflict such harm in such a precious place to provide for our wasteful, short-term desires presages a dark future.

President Bush admitted in his 2006 State of the Union address that "we have a serious problem, America is addicted to oil." Indeed. In the normal course of addiction, an addict becomes more willing to engage in high-risk behavior and suffer greater negative consequences in order to secure the next fix.

With the Chukchi Sea lease sale, we as a society are admitting that our oil addiction has deepened, grown more uncontrollable and moved into dangerous territory. In this stage, the self-destructive addict will stop at nothing to get the next fix and continue to resist treatment.

Where will our oil addiction end? We know the object of our addiction is finite and running out. We know the consequences of our addiction -- climate change, pollution, habitat damage, health impacts, the lives and dollars we spend to secure oil supplies. We know how to subsidize and develop an efficient and sustainable energy economy.

But opening the Chukchi Sea just for one more oil fix, fully expecting that it will cause significant harm, shows that we are unwilling to control our oil addiction and look beyond it into a sustainable future. We should be ashamed. It is time for aggressive political intervention in this addiction -- something to think about for the November election.

Rick Steiner is a professor and conservation specialist at the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program in Anchorage.

© Copyright 2008, The Anchorage Daily News

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