Why Oil Exploration in the Arctic Is Another Sign of the Drive for Extreme Energy

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Well, there’s one thing you should take away from the Interior Department’s decision yesterday to conditionally allow the oil company Shell to begin drilling exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean: the Obama Administration is not anti-energy. Despite constant complaining from the energy industry and Republicans in Congress that the White House is seeking to destroy domestic drilling, the reality is otherwise. Domestic oil production actually rose last year—despite the temporary moratorium triggered by the Gulf of Mexico spill—and Obama has made it clear again and again that he wants more oil and gas coming from U.S. lands and waters.

The move to tentatively approve Shell’s plan to drill four exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of Alaska—though the company will still need to win additional permits from other government agencies—fits into Obama’s strategy, as Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times:

This strikes me as a shift back to the track that the administration was on prior to last year’s oil spill. It seems the lesson that the administration took is that offshore drilling needs to be regulated better and done better, not that it shouldn’t be done at all.

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Environmentalists, however, view any plan to drill in the cold and violent waters of the Arctic Ocean as potentially disastrous—and they will almost certainly challenge Shell and the federal government in court. They worry that even problem-free drilling will disrupt the habitat of endangered bowhead whales—a fear shared by many native communities on Alaska’s North Shore, who have hunted whales on a subsistence basis for centuries. Even more so, however, conservationists are concerned about the potentially catastrophic effects of a spill in the Arctic, far from any possible assistance, and where the cold water would be far less hospitable to oil than the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico

As I wrote last year, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—home to the heart of the American drilling industry—is a bit like having a heart attack while in intensive care. It’s certainly not good for you, but you’re surrounded by experts and easily accessible equipment which can immediately help limit the damage. An oil spill in the Arctic, on the other hand, is like having a heart attack… in the Arctic, far from any doctors or hospitals. You’re on your own, as Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times points out:

Even in the “summer” season between July and October, when Arctic drilling normally occurs, true open water without ice occurs only 54% to 88% of the time, even close to shore, according to the report, prepared for the National Energy Board by S.L. Ross Environmental Research Ltd. of Ottawa.

Conditions can be so bad that no ice cleanup measures are even possible about 20% of the time in June, 40% of the time in August and 65% of the time in October, said the report, which measured typical temperatures, wave heights and ice patterns and how they might prevent the use of such responses as in-situ burning, containment  and application of dispersants.

After October, any active response would almost certainly deferred until the following melt season, the report said.

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Shell says that it has made improvements to its spill-response plan, in line with demands from the government, including using two drill ships in the Arctic, each of which would be able to drill a relief well for the other. Shell will put extra shears on its blowout preventers—a major cause of the Deepwater Horizon blowout—and keep emergency capping systems near the drill sites. Shell’s wells in the Beaufort Sea will also be relatively shallow—just 160 ft. below the surface, compared to the BP’s 5,000 ft. deep well in the Gulf.

Will Shell—which has already spent some nearly $4 billion and more than five years working on drilling in the Arctic—get final approval? Environmentalists and native group will fight the company in court, and they’ve had success before. But the Alaskan Arctic contains an estimated 27 billion barrels of oil, and unless we can significantly reduce the American thirst for crude, it’s going to be difficult to keep the drilling rigs out of the far north. The basic economics haven’t changed much since I visited Alaska’s North Slope in 2009:

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In the long run, the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi Seas will be at increasing risk for a simple reason: economics. Even at the lower end of estimates, untapped oil deposits off Alaska’s coast could be worth more than $1 trillion. The International Energy Association predicts that, barring major policy changes, global demand for oil will rise from 85 million barrels a day to 106 million barrels a day in 2030. That oil will need to come from somewhere, and in the U.S. that somewhere is likely to include Alaska.

America can choose to forgo developing the state’s offshore resources — although the public outcry over high gas prices last year shows how politically difficult that will be — but then it will just need to buy its oil from somewhere else, where environmental regulations might be weaker. “Offshore is needed to get the U.S. off foreign oil,” says Marilyn Crockett, the executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. “We should be doing everything we can to reduce that dependence.” Says [Edward] Itta, the North Slope Borough mayor: “I do fear that a choice might be inevitable, and I’m not sure what the right one is. It’s the kind of choice that wakes you up at 3:30 in the morning and you can’t get back to sleep. How the hell do you balance it?”

It’s a question we’re still trying to answer as we enter the age of extreme energy.

More from Ecocentric: The White House Reverses Itself on Offshore Drilling  

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME