After more than five years of wrangling and spending billions of dollars, Royal Dutch Shell has finally been given “conditional” approval to start exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska next summer. The go-ahead to drill up to four wells comes from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management and Regulatory Enforcement (BOEMRE), the agency with the impossible-to-remember name that replaced the corrupt Mineral Mining Service…which had blatantly ignored the realities of what was going on in the Gulf of Mexico’s exploitation business.
Shell bought leases in 2005 and 2007, paying about $3.5 billion, and would like to get started on shallow-water wells next July. The company won approval primarily based on its insistence that in a worst-case scenario—a blowout, similar to the Deepwater Horizon accident—it would be able to recover 90 to 95 percent of any oil spilled. By comparison, only 5 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico was recovered.
It’s clear that one reason the BOEMRE has given its conditional approval is due to consistent prodding within the Obama administration, specifically its Department of Interior, to grow domestic oil production. The agency’s 10-page report allowing Shell’s initial wells said it could find “no significant impact” of the planned wells.
Environmentalists were predictably disappointed by the announcement. “Plain lunacy,” was the response of Chuck Cusen, director of Alaska projects at the NRDC. “A disaster waiting to happen,” said Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris.
One caveat: The company must still get an additional three dozen permits from the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and others before it can do any drilling. Expect fierce opposition.
Here are 5 reasons we should all be cautious about Shell’s plans to tap the vast oil and gas resources that lie beneath the Arctic Ocean:
1. Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, where the BP spill lasted 86 days, the waters off the coast of Alaska are always frigid and often filled with floating ice. Hurricane force winds, subzero temperatures, and months of fog and darkness are typical. There is no proven technology for cleaning up oil in icy waters, where skimmers won’t work. While Shell says it has a “spill response plan,” it also acknowledges it doesn’t currently know how to address a potential spill on ice. As for help, the nearest Coast Guard Station is a thousand miles away and the agency has already said it can’t be counted on for much help (see below). The worst-case scenario is a blowout that begins in the fall and may not be addressed until the ice disappears in the late spring.
2. The proposed drilling site is off the North Slope of Alaska, not far from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to both a delicate ecosystem and a plethora of marine mammals, including bowhead whales, polar bears, walrus, ice seals and other marine wildlife, many of which are endangered. Everything from construction to a spill will inevitably alter the environment.
3. As Arctic and sub-Arctic Sea ice continues to disappear, encouraging more traffic and exploitation, there simply aren’t enough watchdogs in the area to help out if something goes wrong. The Coast Guard says it has begun practicing with skimmers and oil recovery systems but so far they are just “exercises.” If wells like Shell’s are constructed, the Coast Guard has indicated it will need “specialized” assets, i.e. more and bigger boats. Currently it has only one, small active icebreaker in the region. It is considering bringing bigger icebreakers on, but that won’t happen until at least 2013.
4. Even as the conditional approval was being given, a Shell pipeline off the Aberdeenshire coast of Scotland was spilling into the North Sea. Thought to be the worst spill in U.K. waters in more than ten years, as many as 120 barrels leaked. The accident occurred on Wednesday of last week, but no report was made by Shell to the public until Friday, by which time it had spread to a 50-square-mile slick. On Saturday the leak was reported (by Shell) to be “under control.”
5. A just-released United Nations report details the extent of environmental pollution caused by Shell in Nigeria during the past 50 years, and it is worse than thought. The UN estimates a proper cleanup would take 30 years and cost more than $1 billion in just the first five years, clearly not a good track record for the company that wants to drill in one of the most pristine environments on the planet. Meanwhile, some Nigerian environmental groups are disagreeing with the UN study, suggesting it was influenced by big oil—including Shell—since true cleanup costs would run into the tens of billions and impact a region far more widespread than the report addresses.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to takepart.com)
As the ice covering the Arctic disappears at an ever-faster rate (in the past 10 days losing as much as 58,000 square miles of sea ice a day), wreaking havoc on polar bears, arctic foxes and other wildlife, not everyone is focused on the effects of all that melting on rising sea levels or diminishing polar bear habitat.
Photo: Staff photographer/Reuters
Military strategists in the nations bordering the Arctic Circle are instead eyeing the big melt with a focus on where best to deploy ships, troops, bases and more. According to documents bared by WikiLeaks, the ultimate goal is not necessarily gaining new territory but rather access to resources, specifically the 90 billion barrels of oil and one-third of natural gas reserves on the planet thought to lie beneath the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
Rather than invest time and energy in how we might slow the warming global temps that are so heavily impacting the region, governments in Russia, the U.S., China and NATO are instead plotting on what weaponry to engage in the fight over who owns what. That, says Guardian reporter Nick Young, is the equivalent of trying to put out a fire by dousing it with gasoline.
Rather than deploying more scientists to the region, military exercises involving nuclear submarines, Aegis-class frigates, bombers and a new generation of icebreakers are ramping up. Recently the U.S. sent two nuclear-powered attack submarines to the region for “exercises”; Russia responded by announcing it would deploy two brigades to the Arctic, including a special forces unit.
Leaked cables from both U.S. and Russian diplomats warn of increased military threats. Head of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, is quoted saying, “One cannot exclude that in the future there will be a redistribution of power, up to armed intervention.” Meanwhile, the Americans admit they are “cozying up to” Greenland, in part as a way to keep the Chinese at arms length. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has talked about the need to establish a “zone of peace” in the Arctic, while at the same time talking about each nation protecting its own “national interests.”
“With Greenlandic independence glinting on the horizon,” reads one U.S. cable, “the U.S. has a unique opportunity to shape the circumstances to which an independent national may emerge.” The desired goal, continues the cable, is to encourage the Greenlanders to “resist any false choice between the U.S. and Europe. It will also strengthen our relationship…vis-à-vis the Chinese, who have shown increasing interest in Greenland’s natural resource.”
Legal questions remain over exactly who does own what in the far north. The U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gives nations an EEZ (exclusive economic zone) that extends 200 miles off their coastlines. But since so much territory in the north overlaps, the law has proven imperfect.
The leaked cables have made it clear that every nation has its own concerns: Canadians worry that a growing NATO presence north of the Arctic Circle will give non-Arctic members growing influence; Norway seems pleased by the deal Russia gave it on fighter planes patrolling its coastline; Danish diplomats encourage the U.S to back off, so “the rest of us will have more to carve up.”
Most cynically, the cables reinforce a belief that the melting of the Arctic ice is ultimately a good thing, opening up shipping lanes from Europe to Asia and giving easier access to all that oil, gas and minerals. Canada is now the third-largest producer of diamonds in the world; it’s unknown exactly what other mineral-rich deposits are out there beneath the fast-disappearing ice, but geologists from all nations are anxious to explore.
The Arctic Council, set up to mediate disputes in the region, is made up of representatives from the U.S., Canada, Russian, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland. It met most recently in May, in Nuuk, Greenland. The meeting focused on a treaty requiring member nations to coordinate plans and operations in the event of a plane crash, cruise ship sinking or a major oil spill. To date, the council has not come close to proposing any guide for the future, though a heavy-hitting group attended this year’s version from the U.S., including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. One thing the Council agreed on? Turning down China’s request to join as an “observer.”
Aqqaluk Lynge, former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, told reporters in Nuuk that he is “nervous” about the current state of affairs. “There is a military buildup and an increase in megaphone diplomacy. We do not want a return to the Cold War.”
But it would seem that’s where the Arctic is heading, as its ice disappears faster and faster.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to takepart.com)
While the world’s attention has been focused on tumult in Egypt during the past three weeks – with particular concern focused on the future of oil transportation and oil prices as the Mideast continues to be rocked – some quieter though equally important revolutions have been going on in the Arctic that could have a powerful impact on fossil fuel extraction.
While the Saudi oil reserves account for one-fifth of the world’s supply and 1.8 million barrels of oil move through the Suez Canal every day, there’s an equal amount of untapped oil in the far north, in a place less wracked by civil wars, military coups and feisty autocrats. At least for now.
Roughly 13 percent of the planet’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas is trapped below the icy waters of the Arctic. Both publicly and behind-the-scenes there are intense, ongoing political fights going on over who will get to drill for and profit from it all.
The Arctic is politically defined by the five nations that border it (Russia, Norway, the U.S., Canada and Denmark [via Greenland]) and geographically defined by everything north of 66.56 north latitude. While temperatures of 140 degrees F impact oil drilling in the Mideast it is cold waters, big winds and lots of ice and icebergs that stymie drilling in the north. The influence of climate change is of course the biggest environmental influencer in recent years, as there is less and less ice covering the seas, thus the boundaries of the battlegrounds keep shifting.
But the game is definitely on.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)