published Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

A hiatus in pursuit of Arctic oil

Shell Oil has spent six years and approximately $4.5 billion in an effort to drill into what it believes are rich new oil fields off the Arctic coast of Alaska. Its current effort came to a close Monday when the company said it would suspend drilling operations for the year following the latest in a series of setbacks. To date, the company has nothing to show for its multiyear investment. To some, the lack of return on investment, would suggest it was time to re-evaluate the project. Not Shell. The company says it will resume exploration, probably next summer. That's an unwise decision.

So is the Obama administration's unwavering support of Shell's endeavor. The president and his advisors should dampen their enthusiasm for the project given the demonstrated dangers -- physical and environmental -- of drilling in the Arctic. So far, though, they continue to support Shell because doing so meshes with the president's pledge to expand domestic oil production. That's putting political expediency ahead of long-term national interest.

The dangers posed to the environment by drilling in the Arctic are documented. Harsh conditions lead to equipment failure and extreme danger for the men and women who operate it. Indeed, it was the failure of a spill containment dome during tests that prompted Shell's decision to suspend current exploration.

That failure occurred in the relatively calm waters of Puget Sound, not the difficult conditions of the Arctic where cold, high winds and ice floes would complicate any attempt to contain a spill or a blowout a mile deep. There's an obvious lesson there, but Shell chooses to ignore it.

For the moment, the failure of the containment equipment means that Shell will not be able to explore the layers of the deep seabed for oil. Before permits to do so can be issued, equipment to stop a sudden leak or blowout -- remember the disastrous BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico? -- must past muster with the Coast Guard. That's a sensible requirement. A better measure would be to forbid drilling in such perilous and ecologically fragile regions.

Still, it is apparent that the Arctic's oil remains a target for Shell and other oil companies. It seems likely, too, that the administration will continue to abet that effort. The response to Shell's announcement that drilling would be suspended was an official statement complimenting Shell. Conveniently, there was no mention of the accident that prompted the halt.

The Obama administration is correct to seek increased domestic energy production, but there are better ways to achieve that goal than the single-minded pursuit of oil in the Arctic and other sensitive areas. Renewed emphasis on conservation and more support for viable alternative energy sources -- wind and solar, among others -- hold considerable promise. The government should fully embrace those options rather than continue its politics-infused pursuit of fossil fuels.

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