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The Looming Disaster: Oil Follies in the Arctic

Tom Engelhardt

Polar bear approaching Bowhead remains from a previous year's hunt, Bernard harbor outside Kaktovik, 2001. (Credit: Subhankar Banerjee)

Sometimes the future is filled with surprises.  On other occasions, it can be painfully predictable.  In the case of drilling for oil in the extreme reaches of America's Arctic seas, the latter is the case.  BP's catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, growing worse by the hour, is a living lesson in what will happen, sooner or later, if America's Arctic waters are opened to the giant oil companies.  If their drill rigs arrive, rest assured, despoliation will follow; and barring the sort of quick action by President Obama or Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar that Congressional representatives are increasingly calling for, rest assured as well that they will come.  Despite the sobering vision of BP's collosal mess in the Gulf, Shell Oil is reportedly "moving vessels and other equipment from distant locations, in preparation for assembling its Arctic drilling fleet" in Alaskan Arctic waters this summer to bore test wells.  The company apparently has no second thoughts on the subject.

The difference between the Gulf of Mexico and those northern waters is this: the climate is far less conducive to clean-up operations.  If Shell were to "BP" the Alaskan Arctic, despite its effusive claims for the safety of its drilling operations and similarly profuse promises that it's ready to cap and clean the oil spills it essentially insists can't happen, real help would be in short supply and a long way off.

If the oil company is allowed to go through with its drilling plans in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and anything goes wrong, the nearest Coast Guard base would be almost 1,000 miles distant, the nearest cleanup vessels and equipment too few and 100 miles away, the nearest airports capable of handling large cargo planes similarly at least 100 miles away, and the nearest "major potential supply city," Seattle, a couple of thousand miles away.  Combine this with extreme local conditions and you have a surefire recipe for turning "drill, baby, drill" into "disaster, baby, disaster."


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Subhankar Banerjee is the foremost photographer of perhaps the most beautiful, ecologically diverse, climatically extreme, and deeply desired oil drilling location in North America, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  In the Bush years, he had a strange experience: an exhibit of photographs from his book Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, was to appear at a major venue in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History, but in May 2003, the museum suddenly moved the exhibit to a more obscure spot and stripped it of its captions which -- horror of horrors -- "included statements advocating the protection of the refuge."  The Arctic Refuge was never opened to the oil companies.  The rest of the Arctic may not be so lucky.  After years photographing there, Banerjee knows just what drilling in our Arctic waters will mean and what, if the Obama administration doesn't move with speed, will surely be lost in the process -- a world of staggering, generative richness which, distant as it may be, is our world, too.

You can see Banerjee’s remarkable photos and his views on Shell’s drilling plan here.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books), will be published in June.

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