Safety first in the race for Arctic oil

Arne Jernelov says those who wish to drill in polar seas need to be fully prepared for the risks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 4:47am

The rapid shrinkage of Arctic ice cover is one of the most dramatic changes in nature currently occurring anywhere on the planet, with profound environmental and economic implications.

More immediately, the Arctic's vast reserves of fossil fuels and minerals will become far more accessible. At today's prices, these reserves could be worth more than US$7 trillion, according to international energy companies.

Because much of the Arctic Ocean is shallow and located on continental shelves, the bordering countries are scrambling to stake claims to exclusive economic zones under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The political heat is also being turned up in the Arctic Council, a body set up to facilitate co-operation between states with Arctic territories.

The large oil and gas companies are very active, too, and exploratory drilling is continuing. Of the large oil companies, only one - France's Total - has argued against Arctic oil exploration on the grounds of environmental risks and economic costs.

There are several risks specific to the Arctic Ocean. For starters, there's the climate. Even if the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free in the summer, most of the year it is not, and icebergs will become more common and possibly larger. This, together with frequent, powerful and icy storms, increases the likelihood of blowouts and other spills.

Then there are the problems associated with remoteness. The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 happened in the best possible place in terms of nearby resources for capping a blowout: the Gulf of Mexico contains the world's largest concentration of oil companies, subcontractors, petroleum engineers, equipment, workshops, etc. Yet it took three months to cap the well. In the Arctic, all of those resources are thousands of kilometres away. In the Gulf, the clean-up operations engaged tens of thousands of people. Where are such people to be found in the Arctic?

Furthermore, in warm waters, most of the oil and its effects largely dissipate within five years. In cold waters, recovery takes much longer.

The new US rules for offshore oil operations in the Arctic - which has forced Shell to postpone drilling off the Alaskan coast - are stricter than the old rules. But, if a blowout occurs, the only reliable way to cap the well is to drill a relief well. That could take a year or more in the Arctic.

There is, however, one way to shorten the time required to a matter of days: drill two holes from the start. Obviously, this would increase the costs of drilling. But, if we cannot wait to explore for oil in the Arctic until we have the technology to do it safely, the authorities should demand no less.

Arne Jernelov is a UN expert on environmental catastrophes. Copyright: Project Syndicate