It wasn’t that long ago that proponents of oil drilling, and even President Obama, were arguing that the threat of spills had been substantially reduced thanks to new advances in drilling technology. It’s a claim that sounds humbling in light of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But rather than harp on the past, environmentalists are focusing their efforts on the future, specifically this summer, when another round of exploratory drilling is set to begin off the pristine coasts of Alaska.
In a nod to the “drill, baby, drill” crowd last December, Obama’s Interior Department sold leases for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, north of Alaska, for the summer between July and October, the inflexible window when seas contain more water than ice. Companies like Shell, ConocoPhillips, and Statoil scooped up expensive leases valued at more than $2.7 billion; if the Arctic contains as much crude as they think, this could be their next frontier in lucrative ocean drilling. All are now in a holding pattern as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reviews permits for their plans. With a decision expected later this month, drilling could begin as soon as early July.
Comparing the gulf to the Alaskan seas is a little like comparing the Arctic to the Antarctic: they’re polar opposites, but with lots in common. Both BP’s Deepwater Horizon and Shell’s Frontier Discoverer platforms were assigned to drill up to five exploratory wells to test accessible reserves in their respective bodies of water. The good news is that Shell, the company that is the furthest along in the process, is planning on drilling in relatively shallow water in the Artic—150 feet below the surface, compared with almost a mile for BP in the gulf. In shallower water, the pressure is lower and there’s less of a possibility of hitting a rock formation or unforeseen gas pocket that could lead to an explosion. But there’s still a chance. “Just because it’s not as deep doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen,” says Charles Cluson, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Even in shallow depths, the blowout of a production well last year in the Timor Sea off Australia gushed oil for almost 10 weeks. (The report on what caused the Timor incident isn’t yet public.)
But it’s what happens above the seabed, not below it, that’s more worrisome. Environmental advocates have used the gulf incident to direct attention to the omnipresent threats of any ocean drilling, specifically the implications of a cold climate. In the summer (summer being defined simply as not frozen), the Bering Sea and the waters north of Alaska can be among the wildest on the planet, which would make cleaning up any potential spills incredibly difficult. Ten- to 20-foot seas are the trademark of the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch, which is filmed just west of Alaska. And then there’s the physics: cold water retains oil differently from warm, tropical water like that in the gulf. After a 2007 spill in the chilly San Francisco Bay, only about 30 percent of spilled oil could be retrieved. And in the case of a spill in the Arctic, crews would be on deadline to get things cleaned up before the fall ice sets in.
Groups like the NRDC and the Alaska Wilderness League are also concerned about Shell’s small ship presence in the region, which includes one drill rig, one tanker, and a smaller ship to put out a potential fire. After the Deepwater Horizon went ablaze in the gulf, eight firefighting ships responded to quell the flames. Getting sufficient reinforcements north of the Arctic Circle could take days, if not weeks, from places like Prudhoe Bay (which saw an aboveground oil spill at a BP site in 2006), Washington State’s Puget Sound, or even San Francisco, according to a calculation of risk by the Pew Environment Group. “No matter how you spin the numbers, there’s simply a lack of infrastructure to be able to respond to a sizable spill in the Chukchi Sea,” says Marilyn Heiman, Pew’s Arctic-programs director.
For its part, Shell says it has “extra safety barriers in place” in the wake of the gulf incident. That includes a spill-response plan on file (which primarily includes rescuing personnel and salvaging equipment) and assurances to the Mineral Management Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state of Alaska that the company is following any and all required safety protocols. “Safety is certainly a priority, but it’s important that we acknowledge that an incident of this magnitude is extremely rare,” says Shell spokesperson Kelly op de Weegh, referring to the ongoing BP spill. When the government concludes its investigation in the gulf, Shell says it will integrate the findings into its operating procedures.
As that investigation continues, Washington has already mandated some changes, including a restructuring of the Mineral Management Service to separate the regulators from the people collecting revenue for the government, functions that used to be handled by the same agency. “We have been—and will continue to be—aggressive in our response to BP’s spill,” Salazar said in a statement. “But we must also aggressively expand the activities, resources, and independence of federal inspectors so they can ensure that offshore oil and gas operations are following the law, protecting their workers, and guarding against the type of disaster that happened on the Deepwater Horizon.” It’s questionable whether such a division will lead to measurable improvement in operations, but the message was clear: in this case, the status quo didn’t work.
For now, not all environmentalists are dead set against the Arctic projects. A letter to Salazar last week signed by 13 conservation groups conceded that drilling might be necessary for our energy landscape, but urged that future exploration, especially in the Arctic, be put on hold until federal regulators can answer every single question about the gulf incident. If that ends up taking a while, it’s doubtful environmentalists will protest.