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To Drill or Not to Drill—That Is the Question
Posted on Mar 4, 2015
By Subhankar Banerjee, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.
Here’s a Jeopardy!-style question for you: “Eight different species of whales can be seen in these two American seas.” Unless you’re an Iñupiaq, a marine biologist, or an Arctic enthusiast like me, it’s a pretty good guess that you can’t tell me what those seas are or what those whales are either. The answer: the Chukchi Sea and the adjacent Beaufort Sea, off Arctic Alaska, and you can commonly spot bowhead, beluga, and grey whales there, while fin whales, minkes, humpbacks, killer whales, and narwhals are all venturing into these seas ever more often as the Arctic and its waters continue to warm rapidly.
The problem, however, is that the major oil company Royal Dutch Shell wants to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer and that could, in the long term, spell doom for one of the last great, relatively untouched oceanic environments on the planet. Let me explain why Shell’s drilling ambitions are so dangerous. Just think of the way the blowout of one drilling platform, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, devastated the Gulf of Mexico. Now, imagine the same thing happening without any clean-up help in sight.
You might have heard about “the sixth extinction,” the way at this moment species are blinking off at a historically unprecedented rate. The Arctic seas of Alaska, however, still are sanctuaries not only for tens of thousands of whales, but also hundreds of thousands of walruses and seals, millions of birds, thousands of polar bears, and innumerable fish from more than one hundred species, not to mention all the uncharismatic sub-sea life that eludes our eyes but makes up the food web—phytoplankton, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers, to name only a few. Think of the Arctic Ocean as among the last remaining marine ecological paradises on the planet.
Now for that oil. Looking for it in Arctic waters happens to be the most dangerous form of drilling imaginable, because no proven technology exists that could clean up a major oil spill in distant ice-choked seas in the cold and dark, under one of the harshest environments on Earth. Even during the brief “summer” open-water season, ice floes remain a constant threat as Shell found out in 2012 when one of its drill ships encountered a floe the size of Manhattan and was forced to disconnect from its seafloor anchor and temporarily halt its operations. Deep fog severely restricts visibility. Storms are not exceptions but the norm, and are becoming more frequent and violent in a rapidly warming region.
I’ve spent much time in the Arctic and, believe me, it’s a forbidding environment for outsiders. In late September, as summer gives way to autumn, ice begins to form in the seas and darkness descends. Any spill that occurs late in the brief potential drilling season would remain untouched and unattended to until the ice melted the following summer. But even if such a blowout occurred in summer, there is no infrastructure in place to respond to a disaster. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away. And keep in mind that a disaster of this sort would not remain conveniently contained in the Arctic. As a recent U.S. National Research Council study on responding to an Arctic offshore oil spill puts it, “The risk of an oil spill in the Arctic presents hazards for the Arctic nations and their neighbors.”
Add to this potential nightmare scenario another little fact: Shell has garnered a well-deserved reputation as “the company with the spottiest Arctic record.” In September 2012, it initiated exploration drilling in U.S. Arctic waters with a conditional permit from the Obama administration, only to end a disastrous year in which one of its two drill rigs, the Kulluk, was grounded in the Gulf of Alaska on New Year’s Eve. The other ship, Noble Discoverer, suffered damage after catching fire, while both were fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Air Act, and the contractor Noble Drilling pleaded guilty in 2014 to all eight felony charges leveled against it for environmental violations and agreed to ante up $12.2 million in fines and community service payments. Because of the damage to its rigs, Shell was forced to give up its 2013 drilling plans. A court ruling in January 2014 in favor of local Iñupiat tribes and environmentalists forced the company not to drill that summer either.
Since then, the price of oil has plunged, sending a shock wave across the oil industry and deep-sixing all sorts of prospective plans planet-wide to drill in Arctic waters: Norway’s Statoil shelved its 2015 drilling plan in the Barents Sea off that country’s northern coast and handed back the three leases it had purchased in the Baffin Bay off the west coast of Greenland. Chevron put its plan to drill in Canada’s Beaufort Sea on indefinite hold. Following the Ukraine crisis and American sanctions on Russia, ExxonMobil was prohibited from working with the oil company Rosneft on a joint plan to drill in the Kara Sea in the Russian Arctic. Even had those sanctions not been in place, the low price of oil would have made such exploration a far less appetizing prospect for the moment.
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