On a day marking the 20th anniversary of the notorious Exxon Valdez oil spill, environmentalists urged lawmakers to reinstate a ban on new offshore drilling for oil and gas in vast expanses of the outer continental shelf—the land that extends off of North America's coasts under relatively shallow waters.
These areas were largely off-limits to energy exploration from 1990 through last year, when former President George W. Bush lifted an executive order prohibiting oil and gas extraction and Congress let lapse a legislative moratorium on drilling there.
Since the bans ended, leasing has begun anew off the coast of Alaska, with some three million acres (one million hectares) in the Chukchi Sea now let. In all, some 70 million acres (28 million hectares) around Alaska are now available for fossil-fuel exploration and industrial development.
With that much territory in play, wildlife conservationists and some policymakers fear a repeat of the Exxon Valdez accident, the largest tanker spill in the U.S. and one of the most environmentally deleterious in history. Oil washed up on 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) of Alaskan shoreline, killing countless sea creatures and disrupting commercial fishing and the lives of thousands of locals. The region still has not completely recovered, with toxic oil still turning up when people or animals dig pits on some beaches. Despite some $2 billion spent on cleanup, only about 8 percent of the oil was recovered and removed from the environment, Jeff Short testified during a House hearing today. Short is the Pacific science director since 2008 for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.–based ocean conservation organization.
Short knows a bit about Alaska, having lived there for 37 years. He also knows about oil spills, having studied them for 31 years as an environmental chemist for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Juneau. (He retired from the agency last year.)
ScientificAmerican.com spoke with Short yesterday about the potential effects of expanded oil and gas production off Alaska's coasts—and whether it holds the answers to our energy woes.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What do you hope to gain by testifying in Washington today?
My overall hope is that the government will reinstate a moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploitation, consider terminating leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and not offer up Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea as well. We at Oceana think this is a really bad idea. We're encouraged by recent pronouncements by the new secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, and the Obama administration in general about increasing conservation and alternative energy sources, each of which could quickly preclude any need for drilling in our continental shelf.
Why do you think further oil and gas activity should not occur in Alaskan waters?
I don't think it is widely appreciated that the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea are among the most biologically productive seas in the world. They are particularly bad places to add industry. Beyond basic productivity, though, we really know very little about how the basic food web of these ecosystems works, or even to a large extent what life forms are there—we're at a very primitive state of understanding. Plus, the region is already undergoing profound change due to global warming and increasing ocean acidification.
How much oil is in these areas of Alaska's outer continental shelf?
The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) estimates there are 22 billion barrels of recoverable reserves in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. If even a portion were exploited, it would be far more than what is currently produced in the state of Alaska. If the total 22 billion barrels were somehow recovered and produced—which is an almost negligible likelihood—it would be enough oil to supply all the U.S.'s [current level of consumption] for three years. It's really more like six months once you get down to what they're likely to recover, though. As far as world consumption is concerned, that goes down to a week or so. So drilling off of Alaska is not something that's going to save us as far as energy security and supply goes. It's just one more quick fix.