Countries Racing to Drill for Arctic Oil Could Spell Disaster for Environment

Giant, nuclear-powered icebreakers are opening up the once-frozen ocean for oil and gas exploitation.

A man stands on an anchor of a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker near the North Pole. (Photo: John Borthwick/Getty Images)

Oct 6, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

Thanks to one of the lowest ice levels on record this season, the Arctic’s oil is easier to reach than ever. That has carbon-hungry nations rushing to build bigger, better icebreaker ships to pave the way for transport ships to haul out oil and gas long trapped below the frozen ocean.

But as the Arctic slowly opens up and untapped resources come within reach, the potential for environmental disaster is astronomical.

“In the Arctic, the risk factors are definitely higher,” said Malte Humpert, executive director of The Arctic Institute. “You’re farther away from rescue and oil spill prevention equipment. You have harsh weather, ice, and darkness.” By comparison, he says, the Gulf of Mexico is the perfect location for a spill.

“Look at the Deepwater Horizon,” he began, referring to the 2010 disaster. “We had 1,000 ships right there—warm water, calm seas—and still it took months to clean up. If the same thing happened in the Arctic, you multiply the damage.”

Most of the buildup around the potential natural resource bonanza is happening on the Russian side of the Arctic. President Vladimir Putin’s government has planted its flag in the seabed below the North Pole. The world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker is under construction, adding to its fleet of 37 ships equipped to plow through the frozen stuff that hides one-fourth of the earth’s oil and gas reserves.

The vast majority of Russian fuel reserves are trapped in the region—some 95 percent of its natural gas and 60 percent of its oil. But not for long. Just last week, Russia struck oil at its newly drilled Kara Sea well. Meanwhile, a Finnish company is building 16 mammoth ice-breaking LNG tankers to carry natural gas from Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula to markets in Europe and Asia.

“Russia is the big kahuna sitting on top of the world,” said Lawson Brigham, professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Clearly Mr. Putin’s adventures stress the Arctic—he’s been sending warships and building a base in his part of the Arctic. But how do we keep Russians at the table to mitigate environmental issues?”

Brigham said that will continue to be the chief challenge for the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental organization that guides policy for the region.

Traffic has spiked in the Northern Sea Route—from just five transits in 2009 to 71 in 2013. While winter ice makes year-round shipping impossible, warming trends could widen the window soon.

“Multiyear ice is like steel, but all that’s going away,” said Brigham. “Maybe as early as 2030 there will be only first-year ice, and that’s all due to anthropogenic climate change. The ice will be easier, but nobody that works in the industry is saying that we could cross the Arctic in the dead of winter.”