From Nature magazine
A new round of exploratory oil drilling is due to begin in the Arctic this July. Oil companies are no doubt dreaming of a northern oil rush, while environmentalists face nightmares of devastating spills.
The oil giant Shell has been granted permission by the US government to drill two exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea and three in the Chukchi Sea, both north of Alaska, this year — between 15 July and late September. The project is finally coming to fruition after years spent fighting legal challenges. It will be the first oil-exploration programme to run in US Arctic waters since 2000, and could mark the start of the first offshore commercial drilling in the American north, although it would take another decade to establish production wells.
The US Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that the Arctic holds up to 90 billion barrels of oil — 13% of the world’s technically recoverable supply. Exploration and production is already under way on the other side of the Arctic, off Norway and Russia, for example (see The great Arctic oil race begins). Many parts of the Arctic circle are becoming ever-more accessible thanks to improved technologies and a reduction in summer sea ice because of climate change.
In a previous round of US exploration in the 1980s and 1990s, oil companies drilled a handful of wells in the Chukchi Sea and dozens in the Beaufort — but those wells didn’t prove economic enough to pursue. “Speculation is that Shell has learned a lot and may be poised to hit the jackpot this time,” says environmental chemist Jeffrey Short of JWS Consulting in Juneau, Alaska.
However, many fear that offshore drilling in the challenging conditions of the north, and around sensitive and understudied ecological systems, could spell disaster. Some contend that Shell’s emergency-response plans have holes, and that even regular operations could disrupt species such as bowhead whales. “Decisions need to be based on good science and a demonstrated ability to clean up a spill. Shell has met neither of those conditions,” says Michael LeVine, of the ocean-conservation organization Oceana in Juneau, Alaska. The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in Washington DC have approved Shell’s safety plans, but the company is still awaiting a final rubber stamp before work can begin.Safety first
After the disastrous blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, US President Barack Obama temporarily suspended any Arctic oil exploration. After that suspension was lifted, there was still a high regulatory bar on applications. In their oil-spill-response plans, Shell had to prepare for a worst-case scenario nearly three times bigger than in their previous plans for drilling in the Beaufort Sea, map out the possible discharge over 30 days instead of 3 days, and identify the specific equipment that would be used to mop up such a spill. The company has also agreed to start a bowhead-whale-monitoring programme from 1 August, and to suspend drilling in the Beaufort from 25 August until after locals have finished their subsistence hunts.
The company says it has taken unprecedented steps to prevent a spill, as well as in preparation to clean one up, including having an extra cut-off on blowout protectors and putting capping equipment on a ship stationed between the two sites. “It’s by no means a stretch to say Shell has set the bar extremely high for others to follow and we are proud of that,” says Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.