The United States has an unquenchable thirst for oil, the black gold. Oil companies all over the world are doing everything they can to feed, but never satisfy, that thirst. Oil currently provides the fuel that powers Americas massive economic machine.
The cheaper oil gets, the faster the economy can grow, belching out a never ending cycle of goods and services. This sounds great, at first, but the hidden impacts of this inexpensive energy and exponential growth have finally caught up with modern society.
Humanity can no longer continue growing at current rates, especially when that growth is fueled by polluting energy sources. We should be doing everything possible to transition away from these fossil fuels, instead of entering pristine wilderness areas to find more of them.
The Arctic is Becoming Easier to Access
As the planet warms, and the sea ice recedes further and further each year, the Arctic becomes more and more tempting for resource exploitation, whether for oil and natural gas, or for the abundant fisheries.
Between 1980 and 2012, the extent of arctic ice during the summer decreased by half, and scientists have predicted that within the next few decades, it will be completely ice free during the summer. This has drastically increased the ability of ships to transit the area, and for the first time the fabled Northwest Passage over the top of Canada is consistently open for travel, providing shorter, faster shipping routes between the east and west coasts of the Americas.
With about a fifth of the worlds potential oil and gas reserves lying within the Arctic Circle, people all around the world want in on the natural resources the Arctic provides. Nations thousands of miles to the south of the Arctic Circle are now trying to gain access to the Arctic Council, an international forum that coordinates cooperation among the eight countries that border the region, which are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.
All of these countries are starting to pay a lot more attention to both developing and protecting the Arctic. Six non-Arctic nations were granted access to the council with an observer status in 2013, so that they could try and further their own interests in the Arctic.
Shell Will Soon Start Drilling
Royal Dutch Shell, the seventh largest oil company in the world, is about to begin exploration and drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean. They have leased multiple areas to explore for oil, but their primary target is the Burger prospect, located in the Chukchi Sea about 70 miles off the northern Alaskan coast.
The Department of the Interior just made a decision to reaffirm these leases, after a court ruled that the original government lease was faulty and needed to be reevaluated, even though the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had recently released an impact statement that there was a 75% chance of a large spill.
Shell’s previous excursions into the Arctic ocean have not gone well. At the end of 2012, they lost the Kulluk, an exploratory drilling ship designed for the conditions. During an ill-advised crossing of the Gulf of Alaska in December, severe weather eventually caused tow cables to snap, and the Kulluk ended up grounded on Sitkalidak, an uninhabited island near Kodiak Island, Alaska.
The Noble Discoverer, another drilling ship used that same year, also had many problems, some of which resulted in criminal charges against the contractor operating the ship.
Can the Arctic be Drilled Safely?
So far, no oil company has been able to prove that they would be able to safely drill the Arctic. The combination of severe weather, limited ice-free season, and remote location, makes it likely that any spill would be impossible to contain or clean up.
No one has yet determined exactly how a spill would be cleaned up if it happened during the winter months, in total darkness, and complicated by pack ice. A catastrophe on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico would forever affect the wildlife and First Nation people’s that depend upon them.
Lack of Infrastructure
Another major obstacle to increased use of the Arctic is the lack of any infrastructure. There’s currently no deepwater ports available on Alaskas northern shore to service large ships. A deepwater port is necessary to support Coast Guard search and rescue operations.
Currently the Coast Guard can only refuel it’s ships over a thousand miles from the Arctic, at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Also, without any infrastructure, there’s no incentive to not dump waste from passing ships into the ocean.
Not only will the development of this infrastructure potentially cost billions, it will also have many impacts on the fragile environment.
Indigenous People’s Opposition
Over 40 indigenous groups from the Arctic Nations published a joint statement in May of 2013 arguing against oil drilling in the Arctic. They stated that the oil companies would not be able to buy off their culture and history with drilling rigs and pipelines, and that irresponsible practices by oil companies would make spills inevitable. The groups want a complete ban on offshore oil development, and a suspension of drilling on Arctic land.
Indigenous communities are also alarmed at the increase in shipping traffic. Many of them rely on hunting and fishing along the coasts and any oil spills or other waste discharges from transiting ships could negatively affect their food sources.
Ships are a major danger to whales all over the world, and the Arctic is a major feeding ground for many species. Increased shipping traffic would cause a huge spike in whale deaths from collisions in the Arctic, which is currently a safe place for the whales to feed.
Many argue that drilling in the Arctic would lead the United States to energy independence. Some simple math, using these proponents own numbers, quickly disproves this.
There is an estimated 24 billion barrels of oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The U.S. is currently burning 7 billion barrels annually, half of which is imported from other nations. Assuming the full 24 billion barrels could be extracted (not likely), it would only replace our foreign oil imports for just under 7 years. Of course, the plan is to continually find more oil in other places to extract.
This is not exactly a long term plan for energy independence. True energy independence will be achieved when the nation produces all of its energy needs from a combination of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass power.
We Can’t Afford to Use This Fuel
What are the impacts of using fossilized carbon to power civilization? There are many, some of which have been known since oil and coal were first burned for heat and light, others that have only become obvious in recent years.
These include environmental impacts, such as climate change, ocean acidification, habitat loss, and the extinction of many species. They also include negative impacts on people, such as health problems from air and water pollution that lower life expectancy.
Climate Change is a real threat.
The main reason that the oil reserves of the Arctic should not be tapped is due to the carbon that would be emitted from the use of that oil. The world is already on track to warm an average of at least 2°C by 2050, even if we stopped emitting CO2 right now.
While this number seems small, it will have drastic impact on weather patterns the world over, causing droughts, severe storms, and a rising ocean from melting ice. If the oil and gas from the Arctic reserves is burned, it will be impossible to keep the temperature rise to only 2°.
Ocean acidification will affect us all.
The increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is also causing the oceans to become more acidic, lowering the ability of sea life to survive. A large percentage of the world’s population relies on this sea life to survive.
Let’s Leave the Oil in the Ground
It simply doesn’t make sense to tap into these massive oil reserves, at a time when humanity needs to be aggressively decreasing it’s use of fossil carbon, not looking for more of it to burn in the future.
There’s a lot of problems that need to be solved to allow society to smoothly transition to a clean energy economy, but they all can be solved if our time, effort, and money is put into finding solutions instead of finding more oil.