Cold Oil Facts: 5 Reasons NOT to Drill in the Arctic

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

At the height of the BP/Gulf oil disaster, I received an email from a Norwegian oil rig worker, with a link to the homepage of a new well going online immediately in the Arctic above Scandinavia.

His message was, “Don’t let them kid you … when they [big oil] really want to open up the Arctic for drilling … they will.”

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Canadian rangers participate in a mock oil-cleanup exercise. But it&39;s summer, it&39;s at the base of the Arctic, and it&39;s only a test. (Photo:Chris Wattie/Reuters)

For the time being, thanks to the Obama administration, new drilling is on hold in Alaska, much to the chagrin of many Alaskan politicians.

An estimated 19 billion barrels of oil and 74 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath the two Arctic seas (the Chukchi and Beaufort), but recent reports suggest that the ban on drilling both should continue.

Oil companies disagree. Royal Dutch Shell has already invested $2.1 billion in its plans to drill off Alaska. It won't walk away from that spending without a fight.

Here are five reasons why oil and gas drilling in the Arctic should stay on hold:

1)  Cleanup of any oil spill in the Arctic would be a far greater nightmare than trying to mop up the Gulf of Mexico (which continues to be problematic). Imagine launching skimmer boats, distributing chemical dispersants and repairing a broken well-head in hurricane force winds, 30-foot seas, heavy fogs, monstrous icebergs, complete darkness and sub-zero temperatures. Lessons should have been learned from the Gulf spill—pre-manufactured caps should be standing by, blowout preventers need double and triple backup, gauges should not be ignored. Still, oil companies and support businesses have shown no proof that they are any more ready to stop a spewing well than they were on April 20, 2010.

2) Given its remoteness and often-inhospitable weather, the Arctic ecosystem is far less understood than the Gulf’s. Its food chain and the ongoing impacts of climate change are virtual unknowns. Populations of marine creatures ranging from birds and walruses to polar bears and whales roam the seas. Science regarding them is incomplete.

3) The base of operations for the Gulf cleanup efforts was less than 100 miles from the site of the spill. The areas proposed for drilling in the American Arctic are 1,300 miles from the nearest port, Dutch Harbor, a ramshackle fishing town familiar from Deadliest Catch. The closest airport, in Kodiak, Alaska, is 950 miles away.

4) Visualize the giant plume of oil that escaped the Gulf wellhead and spread across thousands of undersea miles from Texas to Florida. Imagine a similar plume spreading beneath the Arctic ice, which would be even more difficult to detect. Much of any spill would end up trapped beneath the ice permanently.

5) A new report by the Pew Environment Group—Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the Arctic Ocean—says oil companies should be required to run real-life tests before they are given permits. Shell claims it is willing to spend “tens and tens of millions of dollars” on a containment system for the Arctic. It also contends that since it will be drilling at just 150 feet below sea level, rather than the 5,000 feet that BP bore into the Gulf, it will be safer, easier to monitor, control, and potentially clean up.

No matter what the companies promise, real-life “proof” should still be the minimum standard.

Feature photo: U.S. Geographic Survey/Creative Commons via Flickr


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