The Arctic Ocean is one of the globe’s last wildernesses: often dark, always frigid, and prone to violent storms and drifting ice sheets that make navigation next to impossible.  But despite all of these problems the Obama Administration just gave the green light to Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling exploration plan, proving once again that oil companies are held to a different standard than everyone else.

In a statement BOEMRE (the offshore regulatory agency) said that they “found no evidence that the proposed action would significantly affect the quality of the human environment.” The final outcome is contingent on a few more approvals – for safety permits and other things – but most observers believe the point is clear: the government wants drilling to happen and is working hard to make that a reality.

So what’s the big deal?  A lot of folks have pointed out the obvious: there’s no way Shell or any other company could control a blowout or clean up an oil spill in these conditions. They don’t (and won’t) have icebreaker ships to get to a spill. The skimmer ships and absorbent boom that BP used in the Gulf of Mexico were heartbreakingly useless, but even these measures wouldn’t work in the Arctic.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen on an ice floe in the Beaufort Sea (photo: flickr/indigo-)

But don’t take it from me. According to US Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp:

“If the company fails, if the response plan fails, the federal government must in some way be able to back it up with some resources. We had plenty of resources, from bases to communication systems to helicopters, in the Gulf of Mexico. And if this were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we’d have nothing.”

And for all of their assurances that we’ve come a long way since the Deepwater Horizon, BOEMRE still doesn’t do real-world testing of safety equipment (including blow-out preventers and capping stacks) for drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. So it’s ludicrous to think that they’ll do real-world testing in the Arctic, where there’s no response infrastructure in place.

Computer simulations and warehouse tests don’t cut it. Not to get cute but the only way to know if you can control a blowout in the freezing, icy, howling midnight is to, well, test equipment in freezing, icy, howling midnight.

Even so, Shell is claiming they will recover 90% of any oil that spills.  Funny thing is, BP only recovered 3% of the Deepwater Horizon oil and Exxon’s Valdez cleanup only accounted for 9%.  It would be a triumph of epic proportions to recover even 10 or 15% of a possible Arctic spill.  The reality is that Shell is lying, and the government seems to be fine with that.