Arctic Ocean

Obama finally admits what's been obvious for years: We can't clean up oil spills

Cold comfort for a nation that stands mouth agape at the mind-boggling catastrophe off our southern shore, but today President Obama finally admitted what we and others had been saying for years: America is wholly unprepared for a major oil spill. (And Puget Sound is particularly at risk. More on that in a moment.)

It's just a five-paragraph blurb on The New York Times' website, but in it our nation's highest-ranking civil servant says he made a mistake believing ''the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst case scenarios.'' He went on:

''I was wrong.''

D'ya think? But let's not go too hard on the commander-in-chief, given that every other level of government that's handled the so-called preparations for this massive spill got it wrong as well.

This incredibly dispiriting oil spill continues to leave me a little too slack-jawed to take it on in earnest as a blog topic. But it bears repeating that:

* Skimming oil is largely ineffective, capturing maybe 10 percent of the spilled oil -- if we're lucky.

* Boom is great and useful -- but you can't boom off the whole coast.

* There's a very basic assumption made across the country in planning for the worst-case oil spill: that equipment and workers can be "cascaded in" from other regions of the nation over a period of days to deal with the disaster. 

Post-Deepwater Horizon, it doesn't seem necessary to lay bare the fallacies in this last point.

Despite massive Gulf oil spill, offshore oil drilling starts soon in the Arctic Ocean

If you thought BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill would give the oil companies some pause about offshore drilling, you were sadly mistaken. Armed with a just-issued appellate court ruling against environmentalists and Alaskan native tribes, Shell is pushing briskly ahead with plans to launch exploratory drilling off the north coast of Alaska in matter of weeks.

Yes, just as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill is revealed to be on course to outdo the nation's worst oil spill, Alaska's Exxon Valdez, another oil company wants to open up vast swaths off the the 49th state's coast for drilling. These are the same waters that produce the nation's largest fish catch.

Recall that, as we recounted not long ago, government auditors have established that the U.S. Minerals Management Service scientists were ordered to do a shoddy job analyzing environmental risks of this new drilling campaign in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of the Arctic Ocean.

Recall also -- and we're having trouble understanding why this isn't coming up more right about now -- that it wasn't that long ago that Minerals Management Service officials literally were having sex and snorting cocaine with the oil-company execs their agency was supposed to be regulating. In a novel, this would not be believeable. But it happened.

So now that we've covered the institutional background behind this Alaskan oil-drilling adventure, let's consider it in light of the Gulf spill.  

Climate change's cost in Arctic could chill future economy worldwide, study finds

rm iwest mugIn what its authors admit is almost certainly an underestimate, a new study says the catastrophic climate changes coming to the Arctic will cost at least $2.4 trillion by mid-century. (To put that into perspective, President Obama just proposed a $3.8 trillion federal government budget for next year.)

The true cost is likely to be a whole lot more -- probably in the range of the combined gross domestic products of Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, says the report, which was financed by the Pew Environment Group.

A melting Arctic heats the climate in two basic ways: First, when all the white snow and ice on the land and in the ocean melts, the darker colors underneath absorb more heat instead of reflecting it.

The second thing that happens is that as the permafrost melts, it releases methane -- remember methane, that other greenhouse gas, the one we fingered not long ago for its powerful greenhouse punch?

The researchers came up with estimates of how much both of these effects will have and converted those numbers into carbon dioxide equivalents -- i.e., how much of that better-known greenhouse you'd have to release to create this much climate warming.

Those figures are sobering: The amount of warming to be wrought this year alone by Arctic melting will equal about 42 percent of all the emissions from the United States! That's the equivalent of building 500 new coal-burning power plants.

Arctic Ocean set to be mapped and tapped

More than just ice is heating up in the Arctic. U.S. and Canadian ships embarked on a joint exploration to map the sea floor in early August, an effort to determine how far the continental shelf extends from shore and possibly increase each country's claims to resources, reports Elizabeth Bluemink in the Anchorage Daily News. Traditionally, countries hold rights to areas within 200 nautical miles (about 230 miles) of their coasts, but those claims can be extended if they can prove the continental shelf goes beyond that point.

As the ice cap has melted over the years, Canada and the U.S. have waited to explore the Arctic sea floor in search of massive amounts of suspected gas and oil reserves. A third of the world's undiscovered gas and billions of barrels worth of oil could be below the surface, according to Bluemink. If the new data gathered on this exploration proves the shelf extends beyond the 200-nautical-mile-limit, the U.S. could lay claims to the underwater land and all creatures and resources associated with it.

Those favoring conservation of the Arctic rather than drilling don't have to hold their breath yet. Because the U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, any claims they make to the area will not be recognized internationally.

Researchers are analyzing the data collected on the venture. One find is a massive underwater mountain almost 3,600 feet high that scientists say may help explain the Arctic Ocean's history.

Other researchers are more concerned with the Arctic's future. As the climate warms, many areas in the Arctic are changing rapidly, reports Randolph E. Schmid of the Associated Press. Faster melting ice means changes in growing seasons, which affects many species' ability to find food.

Will Obama administration stop Arctic fishing?

Today's the comment deadline for an Obama administration proposal to close virtually the entire U.S. portion of the Arctic Ocean to commercial fishing. We were reminded of this by Marilyn Heiman of Oceans North, a new Pew-funded effort to protect, well, northern oceans.  Heiman writes:

If approved, the plan will be the first major move by a government to protect an entire marine ecosystem before commercial fishing takes place.

As Datetline Earth has discussed before, global warming is going gangbusters in the Arctic.  It looks like we could see an ice-free summer there in the next decade.

[caption id="attachment_1794" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Ringed seal in Arctic courtesy Josh London, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration"]Ringed seal in Arctic courtesy Josh London, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration[/caption]

The Arctic Fishery Management Plan that Commerce Secretary Gary Locke (still feels weird to type that instead of  "Washington Gov.") is considering has the support of both Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her Democratic compatriot from Alaska, Mark Begich.