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Why you should be concerned about oil exploration in the Arctic

Arctic may be relatively isolated from human civilisation and often seen only in picturesque images involving Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and furry polar bears, but drilling in the white expanse can have its consequences.

world Updated: Jul 05, 2015 14:00 IST
Prerna Madan
Prerna Madan
Hindustan Times
Shell-s-oil-rig-platform-Polar-Pioneer-as-it-is-moves-from-Elliott-Bay-in-Seattle-Washington-AFP-Photo( )

In a recent interview with naturalist David Attenborough, US President Barack Obama conceded that the world is not doing enough on tackling climate change. Evidently global warming and environmental degradation is an active volcano of debates, spewing ashes and molten lava.

The same Obama administration had sanctioned the Anglo-Dutch giant -- Royal Dutch Shell -- to drill for oil in the Arctic ocean on May 11, 2015, just over a month before the interview.

Arctic may be relatively isolated from human civilisation and often seen only in picturesque images involving Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and furry polar bears, but drilling in the white expanse can have its consequences. Environmentalists warn that disturbing its unique and sensitive ecological balance could spell disaster for the world at large.

The task of venturing into sub-zero temperatures with extreme weather conditions is not an easy one. Even Shell agrees that oil drilling in the Arctic will mean "balancing economic, environmental and social challenges".

Even before the Arctic Challenger, the first vessel of Shell's oil drilling fleet, left for Alaska on June 12, 2015, various organisations had been protesting against this exploration for weeks. Two students even dangled from a sea vessel in Washington state to block it from advancing.

A woman suspends herself in a climbing harness from the anchor chain of the Royal Dutch Shell support ship Arctic Challenger at Bellingham. (Reese Semanko via AP Photo)

Moreover, 'Kayaktivists', a recently coined term for protesters on kayaks, have thronged to the coasts since the approval, creating a flotilla to block the 400-feet-long and 355-feet-tall oil rig named Polar Pioneer, which is now docked in Alaska's Dutch Harbour, agencies reported.

Five kayaktivists were also detained by the US Coast Guard for attempting to disrupt its route.

Hundreds of kayaktivists take to the water during a protest against drilling in the Arctic. (Daniella Beccaria/ via AP Photo)

The protests, however, have not substantially dented Shell's progress, with the second oil-drilling ship Noble Discoverer departing from Washington on Wednesday. Shell expects to attain all permits by mid-July, after which it can begin the exploration once the sea ice melts in the region.

Why Arctic?

Arctic is perceived to be the next best discovery, even though Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Iran are reported to have the highest oil reserves up till now.

In 2008, United States Geological Survey (USGS) found that the north of the Arctic circle could be hiding 22% of recoverable resources, which would translate into 90 billion barrels of oil and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, in 25 regions.

Multinational companies like Shell have claimed on their official website that reaching out for these untapped resources is "essential energy supplies for the future".

They might not even be wrong. With the increasing consumption of fuels, their levels beneath the earth's surface are dwindling, pushing companies and economies to search for alternative means.

Protesters lift up a circular tarp painted in earth colors during a rally at the Port of Seattle. (AP Photo)

What are the green groups fussing about?

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as any other region in the world, due to which polar ice caps are getting thinner, breaking or melting, according to the Natural Resource Defence Council (NRDC), an environmental group.

This could have serious repercussions on the fragile ecosystem of the region, severely impacting its biodiversity, marine animals' migration patterns as well as subsistence of Arctic's unique natives.

NRDC warned the consequences may not be limited to the polar caps. In fact, it says that scientists view visible climatic changes in the polar regions as the "harbinger of things to come".

"We simply cannot afford to burn the oil that might lie underneath the Arctic if we are serious about staving off the worst impacts of climate change," said Ben Ayliffe, Greenpeace project head for Arctic Campaign.

An authorisation by US Fish and Wildlife Service on June 30 also allowed for the possible harassment of polar bears and walrus incidental to Shell's drilling program, but barred intentional harassment of the species. It also bestows the responsibility of minimising the effect of drilling on animals, an undertaking which has been reiterated by Shell itself.

Similarly, the permit also mandates that all oil rigs or survey vessels should maintain a distance of at least 24km, a demand called for by conservation groups to curb the effect of noise created by drilling on animals susceptible to it, an Associated Press report said.

Shell also said that it has sponsored or collaborated with various research groups to carefully understand the habitat, avoid movement routes of marine mammals and assess the impact of global warming on them.

Green groups, however, are not satisfied with the steps taken by the company and have asked the Obama administration to stop Shell's Arctic drilling.

There's nothing like safe drilling

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the same US governmental authority which approved Shell's re-entry into the Arctic, released a report in February 2015 stating that there is a 75% possibility of one or more spills of more than 1,000 barrels of oil in the region.

After extensive media scrutiny and debates, BOEM attempted to clarify the statistic on their website, saying that a large spill "in the exploration era (undertaken by Shell) is very unlikely".

Shell has claimed that in this "hugely unlikely event" (of an oil spill), it has a "robust response programme", for example -- the Arctic Containment Programme -- and sophisticated technologies that can cap a leak effectively.

Protesters carry a large sign as they rally at the Port of Seattle. (AP Photo)

Critics, nevertheless, believe an oil spill in the Arctic would be a recipe for disaster. Extreme weather conditions, high risk and inaccessibility to the rough waters would only make it tougher to respond to any emergency in the area.

"Thick sea ice, months of darkness, freezing temperatures, howling gales and dense banks of fog, as well as the utter remoteness of much of the Arctic, would present almost insurmountable challenges to any company forced to try and clean up an accident in the north (of Arctic)," said Greenpeace's Ayliffe.

Emphasising on the evironmental consequences, he added, "Safe drilling in the Arctic is an oxymoron".

A member of Greenpeace is chained to a gas pump at a Shell gas station during a protest in Zurich. (Reuters Photo)

A contentious history

It is not the first time Shell would be venturing into the Arctic. It withdrew from the region in 2013 after the US government found that it was ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the harsh conditions of Arctic, The Guardian reported.

To top it off, in a blunder for the company, one of its oil rigs in the Canadian Arctic waters -- Kulluk -- drifted aground in the Gulf of Alaska after its tow broke off on the 2012 New Year's Eve.

Its operator, Noble Drilling, had to pay a hefty fine of $12 million dollars and community payments for the mishap, reports stated.

Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith calls the departure from Arctic waters in 2013 a "time-out" and a "US court decision" that effectively "cancelled" their 2014 programme.

Shell also claims that their exploration plan has "taken a critical internal look at all of the experiences" they have had in Alaska.

Smith added, "This programme places more emphasis on integrated planning and marine protocols... with a great deal of attention focused on contractor management and organisational alignment."

Activists are concerned that with this track record, it would only be a mistake to trust Shell again.

"Shell has proven time and time again, even with the approval of the US government, they are not capable of operating safely in this unique and fragile environment. The last time Shell tried to drill off Alaska, in the summer of 2012, was an unmitigated disaster for the company. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong," said Ayliffe.