Shell Oil Company is closer than ever to drilling in two vulnerable north Alaskan seas, launching what will likely be a new era of offshore oil development in the Arctic.
After seven years of lobbying, Shell is now waiting on just one more round of permits. Drilling is expected to begin this summer in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, U.S. territory in the Arctic Ocean.
These icy ocean waters are home to one-fifth of the world’s threatened polar bears, as well as endangered bowhead whales, Pacific walrus, seals, and seabirds, according to Alaska Wilderness League.
What’s more, the Inupiat Eskimos of Alaska’s Northern Slope rely on the delicate Arctic ecosystems for food and animal products that are fundamental to their ways of life.
Global warming is threatening the Arctic now more than ever. With shorelines eroding, temperatures increasing, and ice melting at an alarming rate, environmental advocates say offshore drilling could put delicate ecosystems over the edge.
“The chances of an oil spill in these fragile waters are very real, and the technology for oil cleanup in remote, ice-choked waters does not exist,” the Audobon Society has written.
Onshore oil drilling in Alaska is nothing new. For the past 50 years, oil revenues have driven Alaska’s economy, providing thousands of jobs and tax benefits for residents.
But after the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, in which 11 million gallons of oil poured into the Price William Sound, attitudes toward oil production changed. Some Alaska natives now openly oppose Shell’s proposed offshore drilling exploration.
“The bowhead whale and the materials it provides is the meat of my life,” Vernon Rexford, an Eskimo carver, told The New York Times. “They talk about the jobs, the promises of education and support for the economy, but that is counterfeit compared to the dangers of an oil spill.”
The feds have estimated that there could be 25 billion barrels of oil reserves in these two seas.
But the memory of the Exxon Valdez spill—and even more recently—the BP Gulf disaster looms large. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Exxon Valdez spill was the single most damaging event for marine life in North America, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds and thousands of marine mammals. Killer whale pods that lost members may never recover. Oil that remains in Price William Sound, 23 years later, could take centuries to fully disappear.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has essentially approved Shell’s proposal, despite the fact that the president’s own Deepwater Horizon commission has recommended proceeding with the “utmost caution” with regard to Arctic drilling, according to The New York Times.
This has caused some high-profile people to roll up their sleeves and get involved.
Xena: Warrior Princess actress and Greenpeace activist Lucy Lawless was one of several arrested in February after boarding a Shell oil ship bound for the Arctic, in an attempt to keep it from leaving port. “For the first time in my life, I put my body and reputation on the line to stand up for my beliefs and do the right thing,” she told the Associated Press. “I hope I’ve encouraged other people to do the same.”
Later, Lawless wrote on her blog, “I was suppressing the urge to run for the hills, to leave these greenies to it, to go back to being a mother in the ’burbs. But that very fact—that I am a mother—was also the reason that I was there.”
The government hasn’t made it easy for activists like Lawless. In March, a federal judge ordered Greenpeace USA to stay one kilometer away from Shell’s ships, which are speeding toward Arctic waters.
But the legendary environmental organization will not be deterred. Greenpeace is sending its vessel, Esperanza, with a team of scientists and advocates, to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. There they will deploy submarines with cameras to document the affects of drilling on sea life.
Prepare for those effects to be enormous: A 2007 study from the United States Geological Survey predicted a loss of two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, and all of Alaska’s polar bears, by 2050. The National Marine Fisheries Service is investigating whether to list Arctic bearded and spotted seals, as well as the Pacific Walrus under the Endangered Species Act.
Will offshore drilling in the Arctic speed up these calamitous effects? The government appears to be willing to gamble. Are you?
Do you think Shell should drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean?
Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government. She has written for the Washington Monthly, the Washington Spectator, Grist, and Politics Daily, among others. Alison is based in Washington DC. @adfairbrother