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Originally published Monday, February 17, 2014 at 4:07 PM

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Guest: Shell, the U.S. not prepared for risks of drilling in Arctic Ocean

The threat of drilling in the Arctic Ocean remains and we cannot afford to downplay the risks of drilling to the environment and our climate any longer, writes guest columnist Dan Ritzman.

Special to The Times

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I work in the offshore oil industry and I am always amazed that some of the biggest... MORE
Some foolish comments here so far. If we have to leave the remaining oil and gas and... MORE
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America’s Arctic is a place like no other. Its unique conditions — extreme weather, long periods of darkness and its remoteness — make it both harsh and fragile. It’s a place often underestimated, especially when it comes to drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

Take Shell Oil for example. The company has spent years and billions of dollars trying to drill in America’s Arctic seas. Despite the company’s assurances of safety, it has been made clear again and again that Shell is not prepared for the risks posed by the icy waters.

In 2012, the company failed to even get all of its equipment in place. Its oil-spill-containment dome failed during testing, its Kulluk drilling ship ran aground, and the company ended up owing more than $1 million in pollution fines. It drilled no oil.

Apparently learning nothing from that experience, Shell announced a plan to return to the Arctic Ocean this summer, only to have its leases invalidated by a federal court because the company vastly underestimated the environmental risks.

Shell’s decision not to drill in the Arctic this year is good news, but the threat of drilling remains and we cannot afford to downplay the risks of drilling to the Arctic environment and to our climate any longer.

The reality is that drilling in the Arctic Ocean comes with a distinctive set of risks to the environment and would-be drillers. History has shown that where there is drilling, there is spilling.

This year marks 25 years since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, and oil can still be found on Southcentral Alaska beaches. Oil spills in the Arctic would cause irreparable damage and be impossible to clean up.

The risks extend beyond a devastating oil spill. Drilling in the Arctic Ocean could release enough carbon pollution to negate efforts to fight global warming and dramatically alter our climate. The pollution from oil-drilling activities would coat Arctic ice surfaces with black, heat-absorbing soot, further speeding the melting of ice in a place that is already warming at twice the rate of the Lower 48 states.

The chain of reactions would continue because the Arctic acts as a refrigerator for the Northern Hemisphere. The effects of melting Arctic ice can already be seen in rising sea levels in coastal areas from New Orleans to Miami and in a sharp global increase in extreme weather events, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s recently released Arctic Report Card.

The Obama administration needs to take advantage of Shell’s absence this year to finally do a full environmental assessment of current leases, an assessment that looks deeper than the best-case scenario to risks that are far more likely.

An effective climate strategy would require the administration to cancel lease sales tentatively scheduled for 2016 and 2017. The United States must lead an effort to begin keeping fossil fuels in the ground, especially in risky, remote and fragile places like the Arctic Ocean.

The U.S. should set an example for countries like Russia and China that are looking to exploit the Arctic’s dirty energy even as the world looks to combat climate change.

It’s time for America to look beyond an “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

I have been fortunate in my life to spend time in Arctic Alaska. I’ve watched walrus gather on ice floes, bowheads breach in ice-filled waters and polar bears prowl the ice edge. I have traveled with Alaska Natives, who have lived on these lands and waters for hundreds of generations, and I have seen the importance of these animals to their culture and subsistence.

A major spill would leave oil in these waters for decades, killing wildlife and bringing to an end Alaska Natives’ ancient way of life.

The Arctic is the last place we should be drilling for oil. Cleaner energy and transportation options are here now. Their capacity to help shape a better future should not be underestimated.

Dan Ritzman is Alaska program director for the Sierra Club.

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