Drilling the Arctic comes with a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill

Key findings from a new environmental analysis.

 

Imagine an oil spill off the coast of San Diego. Now imagine the nearest port from which to launch an emergency response is in Seattle, more than a thousand miles away, and that San Diego is suddenly bereft of grocery stores, leaving most residents dependent on the ocean for sustenance. Then take the Southern California ocean in your mind’s eye, increase the biomass, encase it in ice, bathe in darkness for a few months, and sprinkle with polar bears. That’s what an oil spill in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea would look like.

5977178606_6d8952825c_z-jpg
Arctic sea ice.
NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Whether such a spill has a chance to happen is largely dependent on what the Interior Department does with a draft Environmental Impact Statement released this month by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The report examines Lease 193, a controversial sale that, in 2012, enabled Shell to drill the first exploratory wells in the Chukchi in decades. Since then, drilling has been held up by Shell’s own grave missteps and by a series of lawsuits, which prompted an appeals court this January to throw out the previous environmental impact statement because it cited an “arbitrary and capricious” amount of recoverable oil. 

The new document — 654 pages long, with four entire pages devoted to the definition of acronyms — provides no easy answers on whether exploratory drilling should proceed in the Chukchi. But it does offer intriguing analysis on what drilling in the region would look like, and is up for public comment through December 22. It’s not clear yet when the DOI will make a decision on allowing Shell to resume drilling. But boding well for the company’s prospects is incoming chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has made it clear that she supports Arctic drilling and will use her new power to expedite the process. 

In case you’re interested in the future of one of America’s most remote and wild stretches but not in spending an entire weekend poring over the report — because really, who would do that? (Full disclosure: me) — here are some key findings: 
 

  • The 2.8 million acres leased in the Chukchi include some of the most abundant and diverse ecologic communities in the Arctic, which itself has exponentially greater biological wealth than tropical oceans. The average number of organisms per square meter in the Chukchi ranges from 800 to 4,000 individuals.
     
  • The average amount of recoverable oil across the sea is 15.38 billion barrels, which “could contribute significantly to the national energy supply.” Of that, roughly 4.3 billion barrels are in the current leases.
    Oil and gas leases in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. Click to enlarge.
    Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

     
  • Still, because previous test wells in the Chukchi have been unsuccessful, BOEM concludes that the most likely outcome of the lease sale is the “limited and unsuccessful exploration of leases, and nothing more.” In other words, “zero production.”
     
  • If developed, however, the leases would result in eight offshore platforms, 400 to 457 production wells, 80 to 92 service wells, 380 to 420 miles of offshore pipelines, 600 to 640 miles of onshore pipelines, a shorebase, a processing facility and a waste facility.
     
  • The whole process, from start to finish, would take 77 years. 
     
  • During that time, about 800 oil spills of less than 1,000 barrels apiece are “considered likely to occur,” some even at the exploration-only stage. The majority would either be contained or would evaporate and disperse within hours or days.
     
  • Further, it’s “assumed,” based on “considerable historical data” and “statistical estimates,” that two large spills greater than 1,000 barrels of oil will occur if the leases are developed. There’s a 75 percent chance of one or more large spills occurring over the 77-year period, and a 25 percent chance of no spills occurring.
     
  • In recent decades, the volume of oil entering the environment from accidental spills has decreased, even as petroleum consumption has risen. But there are exceptions — like the Deepwater Horizon spill, which falls within a rare-but-possible subset of “very large oil spills” greater than 150,000 barrels of oil. This new Environmental Impact Statement, mandated post-Deepwater Horizon, was required to consider the impacts of such a spill.
     
  • In the Chukchi, those impacts include but aren’t limited to: “the loss of large numbers of polar bears,” “many thousands of seals dying from crude oil exposure” and “population-level effects for most marine and coastal bird species that would take more than three generations to recover.”
     
  • Even without a significant spill, routine drilling activities would significantly impact marine water quality, noise levels, archeological resources and wildlife habitat, and could introduce non-native species. 

--

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @kristalanglois2. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty