How close to becoming a reality is this expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling?
If the new leases and others go forward, it would be an enormous expansion of current offshore drilling off of Alaska. But there are several hurdles for the projects to overcome, so it is hard to estimate the likelihood of these oil fields being exploited. The biggest obstacle is the absence of existing infrastructure in the region. Projects will rely on tapping into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and its tributaries. Oil companies would need to see a single large consolidated oil deposit to really provide the economic incentive to build further access. If that happens, it would allow exploration and production of smaller satellite fields around the main field.
The MMS calculates a 40 percent and a 26 percent chance of a "large" spill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, respectively. What are those figures based on and what do they mean?
The MMS looks at the safety record for these sorts of operations, and then tries to apply considerations for the significantly more adverse conditions in the Arctic. If you do the math right, that is, if you combine those figures together, you see that it's more likely than not that at least one large oil spill will occur. By "large," the MMS doesn't mean as big as the Exxon Valdez [which spilled almost 260,000 barrels], but more on the order of 4,000 barrels or so. That would still make one heck of a mess.
When you say "adverse conditions in the Arctic," what do you mean?
Well, for four months of the year, for starters, there is continuous darkness—that doesn't help. These oil platforms would also be operating in broken sea ice conditions, as well, and we don't have very much experience in dealing with that. Engineers would bury pipelines beneath the seabed to be below most instances of ice scour [which is when icebergs gouge the seabed], but it's infeasible to bury them deep enough to be totally safe.
The situation is very analogous to the Exxon Valdez—all sorts of estimates were made to try and figure out the likelihood of a spill in the region. But there are three things you can never factor in: complacency; the inexorable drive [by operators] to minimize costs at the expense of safety; and plain old human error, all of which played a role in the Exxon Valdez accident. We see the same thing starting up again in Prince William Sound as there's talk about lessening [post-incident] measures since there hasn't been a significant spill in some time. Some people are asking if we really need dual tugboats to escort these oil tankers, for example.
How could the existing outer continental shelf leases in Alaska leases be terminated?
There's a legal precedent for undoing them in Alaska with Kachemak Bay in the 1970s. After the leases were let, the biological value of the area was so highly prized that the state decided to buy the leased lands back. Today, Kachemak Bay is one of the most biologically productive stretches of water in the state.
What are your other major concerns about the future health of the Arctic?
As a civilization, we're playing with fire in the Arctic—the loss of sea ice in the last two years risks engaging feedback loops that could put runaway global warming beyond our control. As sea ice melts in the summertime, a reflective surface, the ice, is transformed into an absorptive, watery one. So the waters heat up, which in turn heat up the landmasses, melting the permafrost and setting the stage for massive methane and carbon dioxide release from frozen biomass, accelerating [climatic warming causing more] sea ice melting, and so on.
These are the kind of things that keep me up at night. I have a 12-year-old kid and I despair thinking of what kind of planet he will be dealing with when he's my age. It is just crazy to me why we are considering doing this in Alaska when we may set in motion events that we will never be able to stop.