Arctic Sea Ice Vanishes — and the Oil Rigs Move In

As Arctic sea ice melts to its lowest level on record, oil companies move in to begin drilling the far north.

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This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements, according to scientists from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The state of the Arctic, which is bad, may have just made the dreaded jump to worse. This summer, the sea ice that caps the Arctic Ocean melted to the lowest level since at least 1979, when satellites first began keeping track of ice over the North Pole. By the end of August, the National Snow Ice and Data Center (NSIDC) reported that Arctic ice had fallen to 1.54 million sq. miles (4 million sq. km). That’s nearly six times the size of Texas, but it’s still 45% less than the average for August throughout the 1980s and 90s — and as of now the ice is still shrinking.

Nor is 2012 an anomaly — the ice cap has been shrinking over the years as temperatures have increased, and now some scientists believe the total volume of Arctic ice is only a quarter of what it was 30 years ago. “By itself it’s just a number, and occasionally records are going to get set,” NSIDC scientist Walt Meier said at the end of August in a statement. “But in the context of what’s happened in the last several years and throughout the satellite record, it’s an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing.”

Environmental activists latched onto the news of the Arctic melt as evidence that climate change was happening in real time — and even faster than scientists had predicted. If the threat of an ice-free Arctic in a couple of decades doesn’t get the public’s attention, nothing will. But here’s the real irony: the most immediate impact of climate change-related Arctic ice melting will likely be the opening of vast new drilling territory for a thirsty oil industry.

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According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there may be more than 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil buried in the Arctic — about 13% of the world’s estimated undiscovered reserves. So as climate change — due chiefly to the burning of fossil fuels like oil — melts the Arctic ice, it becomes easier for oil companies to send their drilling ships northward and produce more oil for us to burn, thus warming the climate even further. That’s pretty much the definition of a positive feedback cycle—and it could be bad news for both the climate and the Arctic.

The process is already underway. On September 9 — four years after it paid $2.8 billion for federal leases — Shell began drilling an exploratory well 70 miles off the northwest coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea. It’s the first drilling to be done in the Chukchi in more than two decades, and it comes after years of debate with the Interior Department, which finally gave Shell its  permit on August 30. That approval came over the criticisms of environmental groups and some residents of Alaska’s North Shore, who worry that a spill in the icy Arctic waters could prove impossible to clean up. “There’s nothing we can do now but I worry about the weather and the animals we depend on for our survival,” Steve Oomittuk, the mayor of the Alaskan Arctic village of Port Hope, told CNN. “If Shell finds what it thinks is down there then many other companies are going to come and then it will only be a matter of time before something happens out there.”

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Shell — which notes that its Chukchi wells will be drilled in water that’s only 130 ft. (40 m) deep, and should be easier to close in the event of a BP-style blowout — will have just a few weeks to drill before the cold forces operations to stop for the long Arctic winter. (Shell is petitioning the government to extend the drilling season past the September 24 deadline because the Arctic water is likely to remain ice free for weeks longer than normal — again due to climate change.) Even with the Obama Administration’s conditional green light, it will likely be years before Shell’s wells produce significant oil, and the enormous challenges of drilling and transporting oil even in a warmer Arctic won’t be easy to overcome. (Shell actually had to halt drilling temporarily on September 10, just a day after it began, because sea ice had moved into the area.) That could mean that the Arctic oil rush could unfold more slowly than energy companies want and environmentalists fear, as Ed Crooks and Guy Chazan wrote recently in the Financial Times:

The lack of infrastructure and logistic challenges meant oilfields in the offshore Arctic would have to be big – with 500 million to 1 billion barrels of recoverable crude in a single accumulation – to be economically viable … But of the more than 400 discoveries made in Alaska, only 60 have been in excess of 500 million barrels equivalent, and only 12 of those 60 were oil; the rest were gas.

Still, President Obama has signaled that he is largely unwilling to put much of the Arctic off-limits to drilling, even after the disaster that was the BP oil spill. That’s a risky move. It’s worth remembering that the Macondo blowout — which resulted in the release of nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — happened in the nerve center of the U.S. oil industry, allowing ships and clean-up crews to converge rapidly on the spill site. The Chukchi Sea, by contrast, is more than a thousand miles away from the nearest Coast Guard station. And if Mitt Romney wins in November, we can expect Arctic drilling to scale up even faster. The high price of oil is showing no signs of peaking, pushing energy companies into ever more expensive and challenging territory. Shell’s drill ship — the Noble Discoverer — won’t be the last rig to ply Arctic waters. And if we remain addicted to burning that oil, the Arctic as we’ve known it could be gone for good, melted before our eyes.

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