While the world can’t take its eyes off the slow motion train wreck in the Gulf, environmentalists and politicians in more northerly climes are getting increasingly cold feet about plans for offshore drilling in their own icy waters.
Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice plans to station a supervisor on an upcoming drilling project scheduled to kick off this summer in Baffin Basin, an area of water between northern Canada and the Danish territory of Greenland. Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy Plc, in a $400 million venture, is leasing rigs to drill in a part of the Baffin Basin nicknamed “iceberg alley,” where icebergs calving from the (previously more) enormous glaciers of west Greenland float down toward Newfoundland. Iceberg alley is a major shipping lane, where hundreds of ships have had their own Titantic moments with these floating hazards over the years. (Check out this iceberg tracker in the Newfoundland-Labrador area. Not especially relevant, but fun to look at.)
The technology to drill through the thick sea ice that once covered much of these waters for most of the year has always been a road block. Now that the ice is thinning out, not only is shipping in arctic waters looking a lot easier, serious oil exploration in the region is tantalizingly close. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are some 17 billion barrels of oil in the greater vicinity, which, if true, would make it the largest untapped oil field on the planet.
The government of Greenland, a former Danish colony that’s still under the partial rule of Copenhagen, issued Cairn its license to drill as the island is making small steps towards independence. Revenue from the vast amounts of oil and gas that USGS thinks lies beneath Greenland’s waters could be a ticket to becoming a fully sovereign state, though as I’ve written about here on Time.com before, not all of Greenland’s some 56,000 inhabitants are convinced becoming the Brunei of the North is the best path forward. No one is more in tune with the delicate nature of the arctic environment than the people who have had relied on it for generations. After the Gulf spill, members of Greenland’s Nature and Environment Association demanded that this summer’s drilling be canceled until a better emergency plan is in place in case of a spill, reported Siku News.
Still, if anyone’s going to get the payoff for letting foreigners come dredge up black gold, most Greenlanders would agree it should be them, and not their former colonizers. Cairn isn’t the first company to give it a go. Over the years Greenland has issued 13 oil and gas licenses to Exxon, Chevron, and Canada’s Husky Energy, among others. So far, everyone’s come up dry, so Cairn’s summer activity, if it goes ahead, will be being watched carefully. The company is also setting out to do more extensive geological mapping of the area. The first well is expected to start drilling by August.
But if BP can’t stop its gusher in deep but known waters, it’s hard to imagine what would happen if a similar disaster were to unfold in this nearly uncharted territory. Granted, there are a heck of a lot less people living in the areas that would be affected by some kind of spill off Greenland’s west coast, but the region is home to whales, walruses and big fisheries. Getting the necessarily equipment to clean up a spill to the drill site in a timely fashion would be incredibly tough, not to mention astronomically expensive, and because drilling will have to take place in the summer when the sea is ice-free, any burst well or pipeline would have to be stopped in a relatively short window of time. For these reasons and more, Canada already has a freeze on drilling in its arctic waters, and for now, Obama has put the kibosh on his plan to start offshore drilling in Alaska, too.
Is Greenland’s home rule government likely to heed the concerns of its own green activists? Probably not. The island has been waiting a long time for an opportunity to get some of its own money rolling in. Come August, when the Greenlandic government is scheduled to start auctioning off the next round of 14 more licenses for energy companies to drill in Baffin Bay, the red flags of Deepwater will probably be nowhere on the horizon.