The Impact of Offshore Oil Drilling in the Arctic


In July 2015 the Obama administration has given Royal Dutch Shell PLC approval to begin with limited exploratory oil drilling off Alaska's northwest coast, in the Chukchi Sea. The permits were granted despite the nationwide protest (where people in 13 states gathered for a “ShellNo” Day of Action) and protests by many environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth. In this blog I will give a summary of the history of Arctic drilling and I will also discuss shortly the environmental concerns and technological and safety risks relating to offshore oil drilling in the Arctic.

Arctic environment and history of Arctic drilling

The Arctic is home to four million people, many of whom are descendants of indigenous communities who have lived in the far North for thousands of years. The Arctic also houses a diverse range of unique wildlife: hundreds of seabird species, millions of migrating birds and 17 different species of whale, while experts believe that 90% of the world's narwhal population can be found in Baffin Bay alone. Mammals such as Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes and various species of seal inhabit the Arctic at different points throughout the year. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are home to a diverse array of marine life, including salmon, herring, walrus, seals, whales, and waterfowl. Additionally, the Chukchi Sea is home to higher occurrences of benthic marine fauna. Scientific understanding of these ecosystems and the anthropogenic effects on them, are both not yet sufficiently understood. The Arctic is estimated to hold the world's largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of its largest undeveloped oil reserves. The region above the Arctic Circle accounts for just 6% of the Earth’s surface area, it accounts for as much as 20% of the world’s undiscovered but recoverable oil and natural gas resources. Large Arctic oil and natural gas discoveries began in Russia in 1962, with the discovery of the Tazovskoye Field, followed in 1967 by the discovery of the US Alaskan Prudhoe Bay Field. By 1975, five offshore wells have been drilled in Greenland by companies like Shell, BP and Statoil with the aim of extracting oil and gas for commercial use.

Risks and consequences of offshore oil drilling

Due to climate change, the Arctic sea ice is melting in an alarming rate. Because of this change the Arctic drilling season is limited to a the few months of summer.  The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released proposed regulations on february 2015 to ensure that future exploratory drilling activities on the U.S. Arctic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) are done safely and responsibly, subject to strong and proven operational standards. The regulations focus solely on offshore exploration drilling operations within the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea Planning Areas. Using a combination of performance-based and prescriptive standards, the proposed regulations codify and further develop current Arctic-specific operational standards that seek to ensure that operators take the necessary steps to plan through all phases of offshore exploration in the Arctic, including mobilization, drilling, maritime transport and emergency response, and conduct safe drilling operations. However, offshore oil drilling is a complex and technologically advanced industrial activity especially in the Arctic. In freezing conditions, oil is known to behave very differently than in lower latitudes. Mainly it takes much longer to disperse in cold water and experts suggest that there is no way to contain or clean-up oil trapped underneath large bodies of ice. Toxic traces would linger for a longer period, affecting local wildlife, be transported large distances by ice floes and leave a lasting stain on this pristine environment.

The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico has demonstrated that despite innovative technology, drilling is an inherently risky operation and safety cannot fully be guaranteed. The problems with drilling safety are compounded in the Arctic. Shorter days, harsh weather, presence of ice and lack of infrastructure are just some of the problems in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that do not exist in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell has only been given legal permission to drill during the warmer months of July to October. The question is whether lessons has been learned from the Deepwater Horizon accident and are whether these lessons have been translated into increased safety. While the technology used in deepwater oil extraction has improved over the last several decades, oil spill response has remained largely unchanged. Although the U.S. government has set up bodies to address oil spill response and recovery (Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research (ICCOPR)),  there has been little innovation in oil spill response. In the event of an oil spill, response and cleanup operations involve oil containment, skimming, and even burning. These are techniques that have not changed since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Shell has included similar operations in its oil spill response plan for the Arctic. The Government Accountability Office noted in a report of February 2012 that these technologies face additional technical and logistical challenges in the Arctic. If a blowout were to occur at the end of drilling season in October, surface ice could prevent an effective response. Also consider BP's response to the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico. The company needed over 6,000 ships, more than 50,000 people and a lot of money to control its leaking well, causing the biggest environmental disaster in US history. If big oil companies cannot adequately respond to a spill in temperate conditions, close to large population centers and with the best response resources available, how can we be assured by claims that these companies like shell are prepared to deal with a spill in the extreme Arctic environment?

The Deepwater Horizon accident has additionally shown that oil drilling in the marine environment has deleterious effects on the marine environment. Scientific evidence suggests that noise from seismic surveys conducted during oil exploration harms acoustic animals such as whales, walruses, and seals. Increased tanker traffic associated with higher oil exploration and production will increase noise pollution in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Additionally, the impacts of hydrocarbon releases in the marine environment have been shown to cause detrimental impacts on reproductive health, immunological and neurological functioning, as well as higher incidences of mortality for marine wildlife. Shell’s 2012 exploration plans include drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, where bowhead whales migrate to during spring time. The impact of a spill on the Arctic environment, ecosystems and already vulnerable animal species would be devastating and long-lasting.

The oil industry is not able to guarantee the safety of Arctic drilling. Profit comes before the environment.
The effects of a very large oil spill on the marine environment in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are unknown. Since oil production in the Arctic has thus far been limited, the impact have not been thoroughly studied. The lack of scientific evidence raises critical concerns about further oil and gas development in the Arctic. However, the acquisition of scientific knowledge on the Arctic has been relegated to a secondary priority when it concerns oil and gas development. We know that Offshore oil drilling in the Arctic is a challenge, both technnically and safety wise. The question now is if the profit and the immense technical, economic and environmental risks of drilling in the Arctic are really worth it?