July 30, 2015

Insanity in the Arctic

Despite strident protests from environmentalists and dire warnings from Lloyd ’s of London, the largest insurance market in the world, Royal Dutch Shell is hell bent on resuming oil exploration in the Arctic this month. This is after the firm won approval to do so from the US Department of Interior in April under a ‘revised’ Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan that lives on the hope, and a lot of hot air, that no Deepwater Horizon like disaster will occur in the pristine environment of the frigid north. 

This approval also ignore Shell’s antics in the Arctic three years ago, defies logic, ignores the almost complete absence of emergency infrastructural support in a region that is both climatically hostile and ecologically fragile.  President Obama’s reversal of a de-facto ban on Arctic drilling is testimony to two things: the power that the oil industry wields over governments, and mankind’s blinded greed.

Meanwhile, British energy company BP said this month that it had agreed to settle US Federal and State claims of $18.7bn over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that decimated the waters of the US Gulf. A US Judge has ruled that BP was, besides being reckless, guilty of gross negligence and wilful misconduct. The cost to BP of pumping hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf totals to almost fifty four billion dollars so far. It can afford this quite easily, which is a big part of the whole problem.

Back to Shell, which had stopped Arctic exploration three years ago after its rig had snapped a tow cable while rushing to get out of Alaskan waters to escape State taxes. That rig ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska and was later scrapped. To add to this mess, oil response equipment reportedly failed basic testing. 

The Deepwater Horizon spill response involved some eighty US Coast Guard vessels and aircraft. Coast Guard officials have reportedly said that they lack, in the Arctic, even the most basic information on how to respond to or to contain an oil spill under the ice. To add to the alarming scenario, their nearest base is about 500 miles away, and the Artic hosts, quite regularly, hurricane force winds, drifting icebergs and ten-metre swells. 

As to the cost of a potential catastrophe, Lloyd’s has said that cleaning up any oil spill in the Arctic, particularly in ice-covered areas, would present "multiple obstacles, which together constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk." Could the truth be plainer?

The reality is as simple as it is frightening, and it is this: Oil companies are incapable of safely exploring for oil in the Arctic. In the event of an inevitable incident, responders will be clueless and will be severely hamstrung by the geography, climate and by logistical difficulties. The risk may not be financially mitigable. In addition, the destruction of even a small part of this pristine region will have consequences we cannot- or will not- even begin to imagine. 

And the likelihood of this happening? I am no expert, but an article in Newsweek says that petroleum engineers and environmental experts at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management- a government agency-  have concluded that there would be a 75 per cent chance of a “major oil spill” if the Chukchi Sea oil development were to proceed. 

Think about it. A three in four chance of a disaster.

The risk is too high. Way too high. There should be a complete ban on polar oil exploration and drilling. Starting with the current Shell plans- those that former US Vice President Al Gore calls, quite correctly, insane.


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