Hot Spots to Fan the Flames of Oil's Critics

Article excerpt

Tug boats battled 50 knot Arctic winds and 14-metre-high waves as they attempted to tie tow cables to the Kulluk oil rig. But Mother Nature won, leaving Royal Dutch Shell facing an unpleasant start to the new year when the Kulluk, which was carrying around 140,000 gallons of diesel, ran aground off the southern coast of Alaska near an uninhabited island.

There have been no signs of any oil leaks or environmental damage, while a Shell spokesman argues: "It's important to reflect that this is a maritime transportation incident, not a drilling incident. The core problem was the failure of the vessel towing Kulluk, the Aiviq, during exceptionally poor weather conditions."

Yet the problems have been seized on as another reason why big oil should not go near one Earth's last pristine ecosystems. Greenpeace blasted Shell for "staggering ineptitude" and campaigner Ben Ayliffe argues it is evidence "we're moving closer to a major catastrophe in the Arctic".

Shell has invested $4.5bn (2.8bn) in Alaska as it seeks the oil needed to keep the world's ever-growing population warm, fed and on the move. Others have followed, though few doubt how difficult it is to drill in the Arctic, which includes territories belonging to Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark.

US oil prices briefly fell below $92 a barrel on Friday, but this was due to fears over the US economy. Prior to 2007, the idea that oil could crash through the $100 barrier and then remain in or around that mark for several years seemed fanciful.

Now, that's the reality. As consumption increases, so the supermajors must check areas they previously wouldn't have ventured to find the vast reservoirs to sate demand and please investors with record profits and huge dividend pay-outs.

One problem is that they are under greater environmental scrutiny than ever before as a result of the BP and Transocean's Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010. But all of the great new territories for oil exploration and production will prove difficult, and not all due to environmental issues.

Here are seven hot prospects - with real challenges .

Iraq: North vs south

The south has long been the centre of Iraq's oil industry, while to the north the semi-autonomous Kurdistan's vast reserves have been neglected. This situation has changed in recent years, as $10bn of investment from foreign oil companies - including former BP boss Tony Hayward's venture, Genel - in Kurdistan shows.

Big Oil had been put off by a bitter row with Iraq's central government over who owns Kurdish oil. Last April, Kurdistan's regional government suspended oil shipments in protest at Baghdad's delay in disbursing $1.5bn owed to northern operators. Relations have improved, but the political situation is unstable.

Canada: Tar sands and the economy

Canada's oil reserves are the third largest in the world - the only problem is that most of it is in the form of tar sands, a mixture of bitumen, sand, water and clay.

The process of turning tar sands into oil is highly energy intensive, which means production is expensive and widely opposed on environmental grounds.

With the oil price expected to remain somewhere around its current, relatively high, level for some time to come, the Canadian tar sands industry is preparing to ramp up production. …