We’ve all seen the horrifying footage of the oil leaking, leaking and still leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. And we’ve watched as BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has made such ludicrous statements as the Gulf is a big place, there really isn’t that much oil if you compare it to all that water. What’s more, we’ve read that BP repeatedly told Minerals Management Service (MMS), the federal agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling in our nation’s waters, that their proposed plans for the Deepwater Horizon rig posed minimal risk to the environment so there really was no reason to prepare for a disaster. And, MMS took them at their word.

Fast forward 43 days and we could be watching the same story unfold in one of our nation’s last pristine, untouched places — Alaska’s Arctic Ocean.

Right now, Shell Oil is moving forward with plans for exploratory drilling, the very same type that Deepwater Horizon was doing in the Gulf, in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. As they await the final permits from MMS, Shell has submitted their final assurances on the soundness of their plans — a letter sent on Friday contains such common sense-defying assertions as “in Arctic conditions, ice can aid oil spill response.” Like BP, they never bothered to put together much of a plan for a blowout because “a large oil spill, such as a crude release from a blowout, is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact.” And just as they did with BP, MMS thus far has taken Shell at their word. 

There are some differences between the Gulf and the Arctic. One difference, that Shell continues to trot out as their top nothing-to-worry-about-here talking point, is that the Arctic is much shallower than the Gulf. While this may be true and this may sound oddly reassuring to those of us who like to be able to see the bottom of the pool when we’re treading water, it doesn’t mean much when it comes to an offshore well blowout. In fact, according to a recent report by Elmer P. Danenberger III, who was an expert witness in front of Congress just last week, blowouts are more likely in shallow waters than in deep waters.  From 1992 to 2006, the majority of the blowouts that occurred in our nation’s offshore waters were from shallow water wells. So much for Shell’s “we don’t need to plan for a blowout because it would never happen in shallow water” messaging.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And the ice thing. First thing I should mention is that not only does sea ice cover the Arctic Ocean for much of the year but the weather conditions that come with it are far from hospitable to activities such as cleaning up an offshore oil spill. In the Gulf, clean up was held up by 8-foot waves. In the Arctic, the waves tend to form 20-foot crests, with gale force winds and negative temperatures in October. It could be months before the clean-up crews could travel the hundreds of miles between them and an Arctic spill site — and find conditions that would lend themselves to effective spill response. In the Gulf, there were 32 vessels on hand within 24 hours of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. In the Arctic, that capacity is 13 vessels. The closest boat dock is 250 miles away from the proposed well sites in the Chukchi Sea and it abuts the tiny village of Wainwright (population: 546). As numerous other federal agencies (including MMS) and the U.S. Coast Guard have said: “There has been little experience with under-ice or broken-ice oil spills, and there is little evidence to suggest that the capability exists currently to successfully clean up a spill of this type up in a timely manner.”

But all that’s okay because in Shell’s world, the ice will take care of things and the oil will be easier to clean up because it will be contained within the ice that forms the basis of one of our planet’s most abundant and unique ecosystems. This isn’t just ice we’re talking about people — the ice plays host to algae, that feeds a phytoplankton bloom in the water beneath the ice, that feeds crustaceans and other invertebrates, that feeds numerous fish species, that feed seals, birds and whales, that feed polar bears and humans. I’m no scientist, but that sounds like a lot of life under that ice that would be destroyed by oil. And, as a young man in Point Hope, Alaska, who grew up hunting, eating and celebrating fish, birds, seals, whales, and polar bears and now feeds his own family with the same subsistence traditions, said: “The ice may contain the spill but who will contain the ice?”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Folks like that young man, who call the Arctic Ocean their garden because it feeds their past, their future, their way of being, have been watching the footage in the Gulf with a horrific sense of foreboding. We and the Obama administration owe it to them — not to mention our planet — to stop taking oil companies at their word. The Gulf disaster has shown us what can happen. Let’s not tempt fate and wait for worse to happen in the Arctic.