23 years ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled more than 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine waters and rich fishing grounds of Prince William Sound. It was the second largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters, after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating 1,500 miles of shoreline — about the length of California’s coast.
Thousands of birds, sea otters, whales and seals were killed. Many more were harmed in the weeks and years following the spill as the left over oil lowered reproductive rates, stunted growth and contaminated the food chain. The economies of the fishing villages impacted by the spill have yet to fully recover, and to this day if you walk many of the beaches of the Sound and dig down, you can still find oil.
It was unquestionably one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. One that we cannot afford to forget, even as as oil companies like Shell have their sights set on drilling in the Polar Bear Seas of America’s Arctic this very summer.
The Exxon Valdez disaster illustrated not only the risks of offshore drilling, but also the difficulty of cleaning up a spill in Arctic conditions. After weeks of effort and several failed attempts, Exxon was only able to clean up a small amount of the oil in Alaska’s remote and harsh environment. Two decades, and many “advances in technology” later, BP was only able to clean up about 3 percent of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Sub-zero temperatures, shifting ice floes, storms with hurricane force winds and 20 foot seas ensure that a spill in the Arctic today remains impossible to handle. Oil spill response still won’t even work in the Arctic during much of the year. Yet Shell is pushing forward with plans to drill in the Arctic waters as soon as this summer.
The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, where Shell wants to drill, are home to the entire population of US polar bears. Here sea ice meets the northern edge of the continent and animals congregate in great numbers. Known as the “Arctic Ring of Life,” this area is home to millions of migratory birds, beluga and endangered bowhead whales, seals and a host of other animals.
I have been fortunate in my life to spend time in arctic Alaska. I’ve watched walrus gather on ice floes, puffins “fly” through the water and polar bears prowl the ice edge. I have traveled with Alaska Native people who have lived on these lands and waters for hundreds of generations, depending on whales and other wildlife for subsistence. A major oil spill could leave oil in these waters for decades, killing whales, seals and fish, and bringing an end to Alaska Native’s ancient way of life.
Opening up the Polar Bear Seas and other special places in America’s Arctic will not reduce gas prices or solve our energy challenges, but it will serve as a one-two punch for the Arctic. The region’s population and wildlife will suffer immediate threats from pollution and spills, while long-term increasing our addiction to oil accelerates climate change which is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the world.
The only real way to reduce the pain of high oil prices, and the environmental danger posed by new drilling, is to use less oil. We must embrace clean energy solutions that make cars cleaner and more efficient, expand our transportation choices and invest in renewable energy. Unlike new drilling which will only benefit Big Oil, these solutions will help move our country forward.
The Arctic — for now — is still vibrant and alive. When I stand on the coast of the Beaufort Sea this summer I hope to see sandpipers that have winged their way north with millions of other birds, not Shell oil rigs. Please join me in calling on President Obama to save the Arctic, to act now to protect the Polar Bear Seas before this last wild frontier is sacrificed to tomorrow’s oil disaster.
Photo Credit: Steven Kazlowski
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