As we enter the end of the age of oil, it is clear that most of the world's easily accessible oil has already been produced. Oil companies are now moving offshore into the last hydrocarbon frontiers - deepwater and the Arctic Ocean.
The dangers of deepwater drilling came into sharp focus in 2010 with the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, where 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico over a 3-month period. Another high-risk environment is the Arctic Ocean, which geologists suggest may be the last significant oil and gas frontier left. As decisions are made on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean, we need to understand and acknowledge the risks.
First, even if nothing goes wrong, there would be unavoidable impacts from each phase of oil development in the Arctic Ocean - seismic exploration, exploratory drilling, production platforms, pipelines, offshore and onshore terminals, and tankers.
Offshore oil development will include airplanes, helicopters, support ships, drill ships, platforms, artificial islands, icebreakers, waste streams from ships and rigs, lights and noise, extensive coastal infrastructure construction (ports, roads, causeways, staging areas), subsea pipelines, geotechnical coring, and noise from underwater seismic surveys. These industrial activities will add significant disturbance in an Arctic ecosystems already suffering terribly from warming.
The acoustic disturbance to marine mammals from offshore oil development is of particular concern, as underwater noise can affect communication, migration, feeding, mating, and other important functions in whales, seals, and walrus. As well, noise can affect bird and fish migration, feeding and reproduction, and can displace populations from essential habitat areas. Some of these impacts can be reduced or mitigated with lease stipulations, but most cannot.
And of course, beyond these unavoidable operational impacts, there is the very real risk of a large oil spill from exploration drilling, production, pipelines, terminals, and tankers. While government and industry ritually understate the risk of oil spills and overstate their preparedness, for high-risk environments such as the Arctic Ocean, we should assume that a large marine oil spill will occur.
In fact, for development off Alaska's Arctic coast, U.S. government authorities project the risk of a major spill at about 30 - 50 per cent, and that a worst-case blowout could release some 1.3 million barrels (58 million gallons) of oil.
So if drilling proceeds in the Arctic Ocean, then everything possible to reduce risk should be required. The risk reduction standard for the Arctic should go well beyond industry's preferred standard of ‘As Low As Reasonably Practicable' (ALARP), to ‘As Low As Possible' (ALAP), regardless of cost.
This highest safety standard would include best available and safest technology for all components of an offshore drilling program - blowout preventers with redundant shear rams, well design and integrity verification, proven seabed well capping equipment, independent well control experts on rigs, rigorous cementing and pressure testing procedures, dual well control barriers, immediate relief well capability on stand-by, state-of-the-art seabed pipeline design and monitoring, tanker traffic monitoring, strict seasonal drilling windows allowing sufficient time for response to late-season spills, robust spill response plans, rigorous government permitting and inspection, and Citizens Advisory Councils to provide effective citizen oversight. As well, financial liability for offshore oil spills in the Arctic should be unlimited, thereby motivating companies to incorporate the highest safety standards possible.
Not "if" but "when" a spill will occur
But regardless how safe we make offshore drilling in the Arctic, there will still be a significant risk of a major oil spill, and policy makers and industry need to be honest about this. People will make mistakes, and equipment will fail. It's not a question of ‘if' a major spill will occur, but ‘when and where.'
A major spill will travel with currents, in and under sea ice during ice season, and it would be virtually impossible to contain or recover. Even with robust oil spill response capability, in most scenarios far less than 10 per cent will be recovered, and a major spill could easily become a transnational event.
A large spill would undoubtedly cause extensive acute mortality in plankton, fish, birds, and marine mammals. As well, there would be significant chronic, sub-lethal injury to organisms - physiological damage, altered feeding behavior and reproduction, genetic injury, etc. - that would reduce the overall viability of populations.
There could be a permanent reduction in certain populations, and for threatened or endangered species, a major spill could tip them into extinction. With low temperatures and slow degradation rates, oil spilled in the Arctic would persist for decades. And a major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could severely damage subsistence harvest opportunities, and forever change the lives of coastal peoples.
Put simply, oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean cannot be done without risk and serious impact. There will be chronic degradation, and there will be spills. So the policy question is whether we wish to expose the Arctic Ocean and its people to such risk.
Short-term profit motives
To many, offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean represents the classic fallacy of ‘suboptimisation': maximizing one component of a complex system to the overall detriment of the system as a whole.
For a few decades, there may be billions of dollars in profits earned, and billions of barrels of oil and gas equivalent in energy supplied. But the overall long-term cost to the region and global biosphere as a whole could be exorbitant, far outweighing the short-term benefit. Regardless of how safe we conduct offshore drilling in the Arctic, we would simply be doing in the best possible way something that we shouldn't be doing at all.
And therein lies society's fundamental choice with the Arctic. Do we continue our industrial expansion into one of the last wild and extreme areas of the world, extract and use the billions of tons of fossil carbon energy here, further degrading the environment of the region and world, and further delaying our necessary transition to a sustainable energy economy? Or, do we choose another, kinder and sustainable future for this magnificent place? Our choice here will tell us a lot about who we are, our selfless vs. selfish nature, and what our long-term future will be. Let's hope we choose wisely.
Rick Steiner is a Professor and Conservation Biologist at Oasis Earth
in Anchorage, Alaska
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