Shell is preparing to lead a new ‘oil rush’ in the American north.
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.