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.

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. 

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