Drilling in the Arctic, one of the most trecherous and sensitive regions on Earth, has long been a contentious political and environmental issue. Recently however, President Obama gave the green light to off-shore Arctic drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, in spite of concerned local opposition and environmental groups, who argue that an oil spill in the Arctic would make the BP Gulf oil spill of 2010 look like child’s play.
Fair warnings and potential eco-disaster aside, Shell doesn’t seem too concerned. In fact, the global energy giant is so confident that it continues to send up drilling vessels to the Arctic — without any clean up barge. Shell’s oil spill barge, the 37 year old Arctic Challenger, instead remains in Washington state after failing to pass Coast Guard inspection. The Arctic Challenger failed to pass inspection on numerous counts, including a lack of proper electrical wiring, concern over the ship’s fire protection system and piping. The ship also failed in its “ability to withstand a ’100-year storm,’” however, Shell operators believe the ability for the vessel to withstand a 10-year storm is adequate.
Unfortunately for Shell, and for those living in the area slated for drilling, a so-called “100 year storm” is not as unlikely as we’d like to think. Climate change continues to significantly alter weather patterns across the globe, increasing both the duration and severity of storms, and it would behoove Shell not to slow down and pay closer attention to current weather trends. Robert Papp, head of the U.S. Coast Guard, has said that “if [an oil spill] were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we’d have nothing. We’re starting from ground zero today.” The Center for American Progress also expressed concern over rash drilling in the Arctic, commenting that the severe lack of infrastructure and roadways leaves the area helpless should an oil spill occur.
The Arctic, a wondrous place filled with vibrant animal and marine life, is the last predominantly untouched area of the planet. Yet the insatiable thirst for fossil fuels continues to push politicians and companies to take ever increasingly dangerous measures to drill for more oil in areas that should remain protected. And the data is not in Shell’s favor. Oil spills are all too common and unpredictable Arctic waters will only increase the odds of a spill happening. The tragic part of this scenario is that a devastating spill in this region is not only likely, but it may never get cleaned up should one happen, leaving an untainted ecosystem irreparably damaged.
We’re now in a dire catch 22 : the more the planet warms, the more arctic ice sheets melt, exposing unchartered ocean for drilling. The faster this process occurs, the faster companies like Shell can begin doing business in areas that should remain untouched. Inevitably, this entire cycle only leads to more CO2 being released into the atmosphere, therefore continuing the global warming cycle. While the warning signs are loud and clear, it doesn’t appear that Shell, or other fossil fuel conglomerates, care to listen — and on many levels, neither do we.
Photo Credit: Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute