Sustainable Arctic Offshore Drilling?

  • July 2012: Shell’s Oil Noble Discoverer drill ship’s anchor dislodges and drags ashore in Dutch Harbor, Alaska
  •  September 2012: Caught off guard by sea ice, Shell is forced to emergency halt drilling one day after beginning
  • September 2012: In a test conducted in Puget Sound, WA, Shell’s Arctic oil spill containment system is “crushed like a beer can”
  • November 2012: Noble Discoverer’s engine “backfires” and causes large fire.
  • Dec. 31, 2012: Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig grounds offshore Kodiak Island after repeatedly losing its tow line during a fierce storm
  • Today: Exploratory Offshore Arctic Drilling continues in the Arctic

 BSEE photo of damaged containment dome on board the Arctic Challenger

     Noble Discoverer being dragged onshore                      Crushed dome from containment test

Despite repeated attempts to obtain Arctic oil and repeated potentially dangerous complications due to extreme conditions, human activity in the Arctic continues to increase rapidly. In fact, in just the past couple of years, six of the eight countries that control land in the artic, the United States, Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark and Iceland, have given energy companies permission to begin oil and gas exploration. Why? Because according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Arctic Circle could contain at least 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas deposits. Although this seems like a great opportunity for industry, the question of whether this oil can be extracted safely and sustainably remains up in the air.

Unfortunately for the Arctic, even without the presence of offshore drilling, this pristine and untouched environment is already being threatened due to climate change. Emissions of greenhouse gases are continuously raising the temperature of the arctic environment, causing significant melting of sea ice. This has detrimental impacts on the Arctic terrestrial animals, such as the polar bear, that rely on sea ice for survival. Arctic drilling further perpetrates this melting problem because with more drilling comes more emissions, as well as emissions from transportation vessels bringing workers and supplies, continuing the cycle of global warming and consequently melting ice.

Many environmentalists are arguing that Arctic offshore drilling will only further degrade this fragile Arctic environment. Regardless of precautionary measures, offshore drilling in any location has inherent risk of causing an oil spill because of the challenges of building underwater infrastructure. In order to prevent this from happening, governments have established emergency response plans if a potential blowout were to occur, but responding to a blowout after it occur is often too late when it comes to preventing ecosystem damage.

That being said, the oil industry claims that they can drill in the Arctic safely. In their perspective, arctic drilling is much less risky than drilling in other existing locations, such as the Gulf of Mexico, because they are drilling in wells that have significantly lower pressure and are at much shallower depths. These are relevant factors because if a blowout were to occur, the oil would leak into the water much slower, and the shallower depth would allow the rescue team to get to the pipe in less time.

However environmentalists counteract these arguments by pointing to two characteristics of the arctic that make a potential blowout particularly concerning. The first being that because of the low air and water temperature, oil does not break down the same way it would in a temperate environment where there is significantly more bacteria. Additionally, because of the large amounts of sea ice, oil from spills tends to gather around and under the ice, where it can remain for decades. Studies have shown that as a result of these two factors, the best technology to date would only able to recover 10-30% of oil released in an Arctic spill, leaving more than 3/4 of oil to remain in the ecosystem for years. This impacts the animals living in the water, as well as the indigenous people who rely on these animals for hunting and survival.

So after looking at both sides of the argument, the big question is: what amount of risk is allowed to exist for Arctic offshore drilling to be considered sustainable and safe? In my opinion, the answer should be absolutely no risk. It seems that regardless of precautionary measures and rescue plans, any amount of oil spilling into the arctic inflicts a great amount of harm on the Arctic environment and the species living there. The only way to drill sustainably would be to create a way that would guarantee absolutely no blowouts, and from what I can see, this seems nearly impossible. Unfortunately, this leaves a classic decision for our politicians and world leaders: prioritize our economic interests or prioritize our already dwindling environment? We’ll see how we proceed.






    At a time when the United States is seeking to limit its international oil dependence and expand domestic production, environmental concerns have certainly been voiced about offshore drilling in Alaska. I thought you provided thoughtful arguments as to why oil exploration in the arctic is detrimental to those ecosystems. However, aside from the two interests (economic interests or environmental concerns) that you argue are driving the debate over arctic oil drilling, I think there are other interests worth considering. For example, national security is a relevant issue that has prompted the federal government to establish new sources of oil. Historically, much of the United States’ oil has been imported from Middle Eastern countries with highly unstable governments. Increased domestic oil production will make a statement to unstable, oil-rich nations, that their current regimes are not conducive to protecting American national security.
    The other viewpoint worth considering is the market for alternative domestic fuel sources. While this interest certainly incorporates economic and environmental interests, it utilizes a benefit-cost analysis between several alternatives to determine the most efficient and practical method for the present day. Sometimes coal mining or onshore drilling may better serve our energy needs. It’s also quite possible that some new innovative technology looms on the horizon but the incentive to use or create it just doesn’t exist.


    I would first like to comment on jmr63’s points about the source of US oil imports. Historically, Canada has been the United States’ largest non-domestic supply of oil followed by Saudi Arabia and Mexico. Furthermore the Middle East ranks third behind Canada, and Latin America for suppliers of US oil.
    While I agree that oil import security affects national security, I would argue that since 2 of the sources the United States heavily relies on are much closer to home and not separated by an ocean, our national security may be at less risk than you project.

    To continue playing devils advocate, I would next point to the proximity of Canada to the Arctic Circle. As I read this article I admittedly doubted the claim that 22% of the worlds oil and gas deposits are found in the Arctic. But the volume of Canada’s oil production and proximity to the Arctic Circle may assist in validating such a claim. What if such a large amount of oil is in our grasp and can bring national security and economic benefits? The policy will undoubtly not be yes or no.
    I believe that there is oil and gas everywhere, as long as you are willing to spend the money to find it. Expansion to the Arctic Circle is occurring probably because it is cheaper to do so (as you wrote, the wells are not as deep). How can we form environmental policy in ways that protect the environment, the communities, and lower the risk of disaster while deterring exploration of oil and gas through the single incentive of cost?

    Finally, we may protect the environment by discontinuing US exploration in the Arctic Circle, but how can we protect it from the other 7 countries who also control land in the Arctic?


    Although I believe that drilling should not occur in the arctic regardless of the sustainability of the operations, I believe that drilling will likely occur there at some point in the near future regardless of concerned voiced by environmentalists, indigenous peoples and scientists. Unfortunately the world’s, and especially the United State’s addiction to fossil fuels is too strong to forgo untapped hydrocarbon resources that we have the technology to access regardless of the safety and sustainability of the drilling operations. If you do not believe this claim imagine the view of the Canadian Tar Sands forty years ago. It would have been difficult to fathom that energy companies, the Canadian government, and Canadian citizens would rally behind a fossil fuel extraction process that in some cases takes as much energy to extract as is contained in the hydrocarbon itself. However, the demand for crude oil today is too strong for Canada to forgo the development of one of its largest oil resources.

    But to focus once again on arctic offshore drilling, I believe that it is highly unlikely that these resources will remain untouched by industry regardless of the sustainability of the operations. If there is demand for the oil that is underneath the ice and ocean floor in the Arctic, it will be extracted. Although this view may be pessimistic I think one has to objectively consider how reliant the world, let alone the United States is on fossil fuels. In addition, the development of renewable energy sources in the United States is lacking the capacity to compensate for the amount of energy fossil fuels provide. Despite an increased interest in sustainability on college campuses across the nation, I unfortunately have believed that drilling in the arctic will at some point in the future take place. Whether or not these drilling practices are truly sustainable is yet to be determined. But if I had to put my money where my mouth is, I would venture to say that these drilling operations will not be completely sustainable.


    I believe that the argument for Arctic drilling could come down to something similar to the Canadian Tar Sands: it’s going to happen either way. With so many other countries having claims to the Arctic Circle, the oil is going to be extracted by somebody. As discussed in previous comments, national security is always a consideration when it comes to energy sources, and I see it being very unlikely that we allow Russia to profit from Arctic oil without doing so ourselves. Whether this is safe or not is still up for debate, but until America proves it is committed to the environment over fossil fuel, I believe it will happen either way.


    I strongly agree with jbc34’s point, and it is one that I had planned on raising as well.

    Much like the arguments that were brought up during our mock Congressional Hearing, the development of technologies to extract resources from the Arctic Circle is going to continue whether or not the United States chooses to proceed in extracting oil from the region. In 2012, Russia completed construction and permanent placement of the Prirazlomnaya platform, the first Arctic-class ice-resistant rig in the world. There have also already been international clashes over the development of this region for oil production, such as the Russian arrest of a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace ship and its multi-national crew for attempting to unlawfully board the oil rig. The crew could face up to 15 years of Russian imprisonment, and the Netherlands has applied to UN’s Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, citing the arrest as unlawful.

    We know that the Arctic oil is not going to go untouched; if the U.S. doesn’t lay claim to it, still-developing global superpowers such as Russia (who has a hugely industrial-dependent economy) will, and that’s a fact. So I think discussing whether or not the U.S. should drill there is a moot point. What isn’t moot, however, is focusing on preventative and sound technologies to minimize spill risk and potential damage to an already extremely fragile ecosystem. Instead of dividing the issue into polarizing sides of whether or not the United States should continue pursuing Arctic oil reserves, we should focus on international collaboration and universal adoption of best-practice extraction techniques. Cutting-edge extraction technologies should be shared and built upon amongst the international community. The Arctic Technology Conference (ATC) 2014 just took place in Houston and next year will be held in Copenhagen, and is dedicated to the sharing of technological innovations aimed at tackling the on-the-ground operational and logistics issues inherent in Arctic drilling. These kinds of conferences provide the perfect forum for exactly the kind of collaborative international effort that safe Arctic drilling requires. In my opinion, our best hope for ecological stewardship in the face of developing the Arctic’s resources is to engage in the international efforts of resource extraction by promoting cooperation and encouraging the universal adoption of best practice extraction technologies.



    Similar to many of the points raised in the above comments, drilling in the arctic seems inevitable. The worlds demand for oil has only grown, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the next 50 years. However, an interesting aspect of this issue is the that of jobs. My brother, in fact, is a roughneck who works on oil rigs. This puts me in a precarious position, and makes for interesting family dynamics, but has caused me to consider the employment opportunities associated with drilling in the arctic, building Keystone XL, any any other oil and gas production ventures. Although I would like the see the arctic preserved, I cannot help but think of my brother and his dwindling field of work.

    I think that in a situation like that of drilling in arctic, environmentalists, policy makers, and citizens in general must be realistic and consider the cost-benefit analysis associated with such an activity. I think that perhaps in this case, the best scenario might include trying to postpone drilling itself for as long as possible – to improve technology and ensure the upmost in safety precautions – but allowing for construction when the time comes. Ultimately someone will be drilling in the Arctic, regardless of whether or not the United States chooses to do so.

  7. Rui Wang

    Allow me to be a bit sentimental, but as much as we say that artic offshore drill is inevitable just as tar sand in the Keystone XL project, we must realize how much such action will compromise our goal to achieve a sustainable development mode. While I do not fully agree with the arguments of Bill McKibben and, one issue that he raised during his “Do the Math” tour at Duke is that we ought to shift our understanding of fossil fuel: less as resources to be exploit, but maybe more as carbon sources that should be remain underground to avoid serious climate impact.

    As much as the demand seems reasonable and unavoidable, encouraging the extracting these resources will not be helpful to accelerate US and other nations transforming the energy structure. The same philosophy applies to the international competition on extracting arctic fossil fuels. US should refrain itself from participating in the competition, and more importantly, to view such decision not as forgoing a missed opportunity, but to make effort to reduce exacerbation of climate change. Not to say that we are necessary better than other nations, at least US should not be as irresponsive to global climate change.

    As members of the society that are concerned about climate change, it is important for environmentalists and climate change scientist to hold the firm ground and exert sufficient pressure to bring about meaningful reflections on our current energy demand and mode of development. Every steps of compromise that satisfies companies increasing demand of fossil fuel will encourage them to make even further effort to increase fossil fuel extraction.

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