Ecocentric

It’s Not Just Spills—the Climate Risks of Arctic Drilling

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Gary Braasch

Royal Dutch Shell is set to begin drilling in the Arctic waters off Alaska beginning next month, assuming the Obama Administrations doesn’t hold off on needed permits at the last-minute. (With President Obama fighting for re-election—and fighting the charge that he’s anti-energy—don’t bet on it.) That has environmentalists extremely unhappy. As global warming—ironically—opens up once-iced over parts of the Arctic waters to drilling rigs, greens worry that a spill in the hostile environment of the far North is as inevitable as it would be devastating. Shell and other oil companies interested in the Arctic argue that they’ll be taking extra precautions in the Arctic, and note that they’ll be drilling shallow, low-pressure wells that are less likely to blow out than the deepwater well that caused BP’s 2010 Gulf oil spill.

But a new report by the NGO Clean Air Task Force (CATF) shows that an oil spill isn’t the only risk that Arctic drilling poses to the environment. Methane and black carbon, two potent greenhouses gases, will likely be emitted in significant amounts if drilling in the Arctic proves as lucrative as many oil companies are hoping for. Exactly how much additional greenhouse gas will be released by the production of Arctic oil isn’t clear—and depends on whether drillers and regulators take steps to reduce the warming side effects of drilling. “It’s ironic that climate change has led to the opening of the Arctic for drilling, but we aren’t paying much attention to the climate change that drilling will help cause,” says Jonathan Banks, senior climate policy advisor for CATF and the author of the report.

(MORE: Black Gold on the Last Frontier)

The main problem isn’t the oil itself—although, of course, if the 90 billion barrels of oil believed to be obtainable in the Arctic are burned in cars or trucks, the carbon released will help undoubtedly help intensify climate change. It’s chiefly the natural gas that will be produced along with that oil. Natural gas is essentially methane—and methane is a powerful, albeit short-lived greenhouse gas, with more than 20 times the warming potential of plain old carbon dioxide. By some estimates, there’s as much as 1.7 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas to be found in the Arctic.

But companies like Shell aren’t braving the elements in the Arctic to bring back natural gas. They’re there for the oil, which is worth far more—and not incidentally, is a lot easier to store and transport than gas. Natural gas either needs a pipeline network that can allow it to be shipped from the well to a consumer, or it needs to be cooled to super-low temperatures, after which it can be shipped on an LNG tanker. (Oil, by contrast, can be loaded without any intermediary steps onto a tanker.) There are neither many pipelines nor many LNG facilities in the far North, which means it’s not easy nor cheap for oil companies to actually do anything with the natural gas they’ll be producing alongside all that lovely oil. “The race in the Arctic is about the oil,” says Banks. “But the gas that goes along with it can be a huge source of carbon.”

Ideally oil companies would capture the natural gas and ship it, either by LNG tanker or pipeline. But that’s not likely given the current energy infrastructure—or lack of it—in the Arctic. Fortunately the gas won’t simply be released into the air—methane is highly combustible, and uncontrollable amounts combustible gas is not something a drilling rig like simply floating around. (See Horizon, Deepwater.) Instead, the next best option is to burn the gas in a controlled process, also known as flaring. Flaring reduces the amount of pure methane reaching the atmosphere, but it can also produce other pollutants—including black carbon, otherwise known as soot.

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Black carbon can have a double warming effect. As its name suggests, it warms the atmosphere directly by intensifying the greenhouse effect, just as carbon dioxide does. But as black carbon settles on the snow and ice of the Arctic, it darkens the ground—and that in turn causes the surface to absorb solar energy it would have otherwise reflected back into space. (It’s the albedo effect, which you’ll hopefully remember from 7th grade science class, or at the very least, from the last time you wore a black T-shirt during a hot day.) The albedo of the Arctic is already shifting as sea ice melts, opening up new stretches of dark water to sunlight—the same water in which oil companies will be drilling in the years to come. Black carbon produced by those rigs will only make climate change in the Arctic—where temperatures have increased by 2 to 3 C over the past 50 years—even worse.

So what can be done to make drilling in the Arctic a little more climate-friendly? The CATF report outlines a number of mitigation routes, ranging from vapor recovery units that reduce emissions from vented methane to tighter valves that prevent fugitive emissions to the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, which cuts black carbon. But mitigation is almost certainly going to require regulation, which will vary in the Arctic. Countries like Norway generally keep a tight hold on their oil industry; countries like Russia, somewhat less so. The U.S. falls in the middle, though it’s notable that regulatory authority  is passing from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Interior over time. But regulation is needed. “The potential is here for [production] to be a significant source of greenhouse gases,” says Banks. If oil companies really are going to drill the Arctic, the very least they can do is take every precaution possible, at every stage of the process.

MORE: How Climate Change Is Growing Forests in the Arctic

15 comments
Robert Adico
Robert Adico

It is truly a great and helpful piece of information.

I am satisfied that you simply shared this useful information with us.

Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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Oliver Green
Oliver Green

why the companies don't think about the solution to damages.they just think it when they are pushed to do it by law are society.they take maximum gains out there and don't wana spend little .

Heal the Green

Jim Wilke
Jim Wilke

Exactly how much additional greenhouse gas will be released by the production of Arctic oil isn’t clear—

I stopped reading there. More 'what if?  doomsday-enviro claptrap.

Jürgen Hubert
Jürgen Hubert

It's also not clear how much traffic you will encounter during rush hour on any given morning, but for most cities the answer is likely "a lot".

100% accuracy is not possible in most cases. But in most of the sciences, you can still work with lesser accuracies - that's what statistics is all about.

GOPvictory
GOPvictory

Obama, the fossil energy job killer. 

Jürgen Hubert
Jürgen Hubert

 Good on him.

Jean-Marc Desperrier
Jean-Marc Desperrier

And, will we ever live to see a lignite job killer in Germany ?

Because one thing that can be said accurately is that the German energy strategy is leading to burning an awful lot of lignite coal.

The hidden truth is that you burnt *more* lignite coal in the year 2011 than back in 1995.

Leading to awful co2 releases, and an air pollution that kill peoples all over Europe.

Seeing how you pretend to be role model with Solaramp;Wind but actually do nothing about the lignite, resulting in an electricity that keeps being one most polluted in Europe leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Jürgen Hubert
Jürgen Hubert

 I expect that coal consumption will go down significantly within the next decade as solar and wind energy production are increasing rapidly.

q2pops
q2pops

We must ban water vapor, the gas causing 85% of the greenhouse effect.Termite mounds releasing methane are also extremely scary

Jürgen Hubert
Jürgen Hubert

 Water vapor condenses out of the atmosphere in a year or less, which means that while it multiplies climate changes, it doesn't _drive_ them. CO2 and methane, on the other hand, are staying up there for decades, which is the real problem.

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

Climategate 1 and 2 and now "Fakegate" along with preposterous claims like this one from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia in 2000, http://www.independent.co.uk/e..., confirm that models do not match up to observations.

How about the claim of glacier free Himalayas by 2035 or the claim of ice free arctic in the summer - supposedly this will occur in just a few weks according to a widely reported study five years ago.

This is 10,000 years of data,

http://mclean.ch/climate/figur...

Yes, Virginia - the climate changes. Let us focus on the countless who go without adequate shelter, nutrition and healthcare. 10,000 children die every day of malnutrition while individuals like yourselves divert the world's attention with this nonsense.

John MacDaniel
John MacDaniel

The OIL companies will win, because the repubs will want to use this as a venue to attack OBAMA as being hard on things that slow down the damages resulting from unwise use of methods to extract oil.  If there is an abundant secondary source of energy, the OIL companies should be required to extract both sources with the greatest care - protecting the environment AND their own corporate skins - if and when there is an extraction problem that will result in another catastrophe such as was experience in the Gulf of Mexico recently.

Jim Wilke
Jim Wilke

It is the Obama Administration that approved Shell's permits.

GOPvictory
GOPvictory

Maybe we should ban all exploration, drilling and extraction of natural gas and oil in the Gulf too? Why bash the 'Repubs', there are many Democratic Governors, Senators and Representatives that are for drilling , typical liberal rhetoric.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 You know what - why don't we ban burritos in US?

 Because, you see, methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, and, since beans typically make people flatulent, all those taco trucks should be removed from US streets immediately - we don't know the effects of taco trucks on global warming, afterall. Maybe, recent heat wave has something to do with the surge in popularity of Mexican food in the last decade.

 So, if you don't know, why don't you go after something you DO know has an effect - coal power plants in China, for example?