In the Icy North, Risk of an Arctic Oil Disaster Looms

Across the nation’s breadbasket, many farmers are out of time waiting for cooling rains to salvage crops blistered by one of the hottest and driest summers on record. But up in the frigid arctic, another battle with nature is playing out; the race against ice. It’s part of a $4 billion gamble by Shell Oil to drill in the pristine but harsh waters off the Arctic wildlife refuge, a dangerous bet that pits our thirst for dirty fossil fuels against an increasingly vulnerable and changing biogem world.  

This summer, Shell has been struggling to get final federal approval to begin exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. After months of preparation, its oil spill response vessels still await federal approval before drilling operations can commence. And time is quickly running out. The short ice-free drilling window will quickly come to a close early this fall, and a Shell drilling rig is just now starting its journey to an offshore well site in the Beaufort Sea.

The risks are huge and unprecedented, according to a new NRDC report. Oil and chemical spills in the fragile North Slope region occur daily, and hazardous Arctic conditions present unfathomable challenges in the event of a spill, putting polar bears, beluga whales and the Pacific walrus—some of the world’s most cherished wildlife—at mind-boggling risk in a region where significant cleanup resources are located more than a thousand miles away.   

In contrast to the Gulf of Mexico, the Chukchi and Beaufort are far away from the equipment and personnel needed  during such an emergency. The U.S. Coast Guard would oversee cleanup, and its nearest base is in Kodiak, more than 1,000 miles away. “We have extremely limited Arctic response capabilities,” Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in August 2011. “We do not have any infrastructure on the North Slope to hangar our aircraft, moor our boats or sustain our crews. I have only one operational icebreaker.” The closest cache of clean-up equipment is in Seattle—2,000 miles away.

But even more worrisome is the prospect that Shell’s exploratory drilling will open up a new Arctic Gold Rush, leading to a patchwork of oil pipelines across pristine sea beds, all subject to extreme stress by pounding storms and shifting ice flows in a climate that's rapidly becoming more volatile and dangerous. Here's how the report describes it:

Offshore, pipelines will be subject to more severe and novel stresses. Unstable sea floor sediments are common in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Erosion of sediments could expose buried offshore pipelines, leaving them vulnerable to ice gouging damage. Due to climate change, there will be higher sea levels and waves, more storms, and greater erosion, all of which will threaten pipeline integrity.25 Higher temperatures, along with the warmth of the moving oil, will put permafrost at risk of melting, leading to subsidence of pipelines. No matter how carefully designed the pipelines might be, there is always the risk of human error—in manufacturing, installation, operation, and leak-detection.

Watch this Robert Redford video about polar bear birthing grounds threatened by Arctic drilling. 

Mega-insurer Lloyds of London also expressed concerns in a report issued this year, aptly called Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North. Company CEO Richard Ward warned that exploration in the arctic “can have devastating consequences on local environments,” as NRDC’s Chuck Clusen described in a comprehensive blog earlier this summer. Here how the Lloyd's report framed it:

 “The Arctic environment is, in general, highly sensitive to damage. Relatively simple ecosystem structures and short growing seasons limit the resilience of the natural environment, and make environmental recovery harder to achieve. Damage to the Arctic environment, if it occurs, is likely to have long-term impacts. However, the Arctic is not one ecosystem, but comprises a variety of ecosystems and environmental conditions. The vulnerability of each ecosystem depends on a range of factors, including its complexity and structure.”

As we learned two years ago in BP’s mile-deep well in the Gulf, catastrophic consequences can arise when Big Oil pushes the envelope of safety. That’s particularly true as oil becomes harder to find and drillers move into increasingly difficult conditions. Drilling safety technologies have a hard time keeping up, and in the end, wildlife and people who make a living off the sea often pay the greatest price.  

Just ask fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico who more than two years after the BP oil disaster are still battered by dramatic cuts in shrimp, crab and oyster catches in hard-hit oiled areas like Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, where reports of tumor-laced shrimp and oil-soaked crab are still common. No one knows what the long-term impacts of the worst off-shore oil spill in U.S. history will be, but it’s clear the damage is not done in the Gulf, not by a long shot. As Times-Picayune nature writer Bob Marshall wrote about the ongoing fishing woes last week:

A spill doesn't end when the well is just off, or the last mitigation payment is made by the oil company. It keeps giving doubt, grief and anxiety forever.

Arctic sea ice.  Photo: ©NASA Goddard Photo and Video

An oil well blowout in the icy waters of the Arctic would be even more unforgiving and infinitely more dangerous. All the engineering safeguards in the world can’t guarantee protection against a similar catastrophe in the frozen north, a disaster that could alter forever the sensitive ecological balance of one of the world’s greatest environmental treasures.

The bottom line is we do have a choice. We can allow companies to drill in dangerous places like the Arctic or promote  investments in technologies driven by clean renewable energy sources like the wind and the sun, energy sources increasingly competitive with dirty fossil fuels. Pushing deeper into more dangerous and sensitive drilling environments is not the right answer.