Will drilling cost the Arctic its wildness?


In the dark of a far-north winter night, amidst 70-mph winds, the nine-member crew of the tugboat Alert released its towline and set the Kulluk oilrig adrift on heaving seas. Loaded with about 139,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lubrication oil and hydraulic fluid, the Kulluk ran aground off uninhabited Sitkalidak Island 45 minutes later. It was New Year’s Eve, 2012, and the Alert and the Aiviq, another boat contracted by Royal Dutch Shell, had been towing the Kulluk from Shell’s first exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s north coast, to a Seattle shipyard, when they were caught in the terrible Gulf of Alaska storm.

Fortunately the rig didn’t spill any fuel. But the accident was just the latest in a long line of mishaps that plagued Shell’s Arctic drilling efforts last year, reports Fuel Fix, leading the company to suspend its efforts for the 2013 season. Ships drifted out of control or caught fire; a spill containment barge was damaged during certification tests after months of construction delays; air pollution violations landed the company $1.1 million in Environmental Protection Agency fines this September.

Sunset over the Chukchi Sea in 2011. Image Courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The incidents have become a primary refrain for Arctic drilling opponents leading up to the close today of the public comment period for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s 2016 Chukchi Sea lease sale, and to the Interior Department’s long-anticipated proposed offshore Arctic drilling rules, which were recently delayed until February. Canadian officials are also evaluating proposals to drill that country’s portion of the neighboring Beaufort Sea. And a group of jailed Greenpeace activists were released on bail last week after climbing onto an offshore drilling platform belonging to Russia’s state-run Gazprom in protest of that nation’s Arctic drilling program.

The Arctic has long repelled most industrial development, despite vast reserves of oil and gas. And no wonder: As the Pew Charitable Trusts reports in its recommendations for Arctic drilling standards, released in September to help inform the U.S.’s rulemaking efforts, it’s sealed in ice 75 percent of the time, in complete darkness for three months, and

Even during the summer when the ice pack has mostly receded, (there are still) high seas, wind, freezing temperatures, dense fog, and floating ice hazards. … Anyone doing business in the Arctic needs to be prepared for self-rescue. … (but) major highways, airports, and ports … do not exist. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard air base is in Kodiak, AK, more than 950 air miles away. The nearest major port is in Dutch Harbor, AK, over 1,000 miles away. Sailing from Dutch Harbor to Barrow, AK (the point between the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic Ocean), would be similar to transiting the entire West Coast of the United States.

But the Arctic’s ability to foil human incursions is, of course, beginning to change as the surrounding region warms twice as fast as the rest of the globe, driving Arctic sea ice declines and easing access in an ironic and vicious positive feedback loop spurred by our profligate consumption of the very fuels Shell and others are so eager to extract. The company filed a revised proposal in early November to resume exploration of its Chukchi Sea leases in 2014, with five wells planned over the coming years.

Arctic sea ice extent hit a record low Sept. 16, 2012. The yellow line represents the average minimum extent over the past 30 years. Image courtesy NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio.

Despite climate change’s Arctic impacts, working in the region is still a pretty far cry from a romp through a daisy field, as Shell’s Kulluk trial demonstrates. It’s all too easy to imagine industrial ambitions colliding much more disastrously with the region’s natural violence and volatility. Some experts have warned that this is inevitable. As Pew points out, there is no proven technology for cleaning up oil spills mixed with or trapped beneath ice. If something went wrong with a well or pipeline in the deep of winter, how long would it take to address? Until the pack retreated? And this would be in one of the richest, least disturbed marine ecosystems in the world, complete with walruses, polar bears and beluga, bowhead and gray whales, not to mention the Native communities who rely on these waters for subsistence hunting and fishing.

There’s new pressure onshore in the far north as well. Canadian officials have permitted hydraulic fracturing for the first time in the Northwest Territories. And the battle over Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is back before the U.S. Congress, with Senators Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., introducing a bill in mid-November to protect its coastal plain as capital-W wilderness, while House lawmakers passed a measure that would open it to drilling.

The wildness these places still contain is difficult for me to fathom, born and raised as I was in a Colorado and a Western U.S. largely tamed by human industry and presence. Even after flying to Alaska for the first time this summer, I have only the barest grasp of its depth. The unbroken, unmarred forests and fjords that sprawled forever below the silver belly of the plane. The pair of tooth-gnashing wolverines that ran circles around each other on ridgeline above a tumbling glacier where I stood transfixed not 30 feet away, before crossing into the silence of the largest icefield in the U.S. Shielded by its harshness, the far north still has things that most of us can only imagine – salmon runs thick enough to walk across, rivers of migrating caribou, freezing seas teeming with marine mammals and fish.

Think of all that the Lower 48 once contained. The delicate sandstone cathedral of Glen Canyon. A Colorado River that jumped its banks at whim to gauge new beds for itself across the Southwest. Grizzlies in California’s Sierra. Wolves in Colorado’s Rockies. An ocean of bison on an ocean of prairie. An undammed Missouri with rapids and falls, wide as a sea. Limitless things reduced to legend and memory, grainy photographs and explorers’ accounts.

Is this where the parsing and eroding of the Arctic ultimately takes us? To a time when even its vast devouring wildness that now belongs to no one and to everyone, that belongs chiefly to itself, persists mostly in peoples’ words and pictures? I hope not. It’s better to live in a world that has voice left to tell its own stories, even if that voice is the banshee shriek of a 70-mph gale, slapping across the ocean, telling you that you don’t belong.

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor of High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman.

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