Offshore Exploration to Commence in the Arctic: Can Shell's Oil-Spill Response Plans Keep Up?

By Schmidt, Charles W. | Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Offshore Exploration to Commence in the Arctic: Can Shell's Oil-Spill Response Plans Keep Up?


Schmidt, Charles W., Environmental Health Perspectives


All around the world, oil and gas companies are being forced by resource declines to drill in less accessible areas, and the Arctic is their newest frontier. he geology above the Arctic Circle--that is, everything above latitude 66.56 [degrees] N--holds an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 22% of the world's undiscovered (1) conventional resources, according to the U.S.Energy Information Administration. (2) Its thought that these resources lie predominantly under Arctic seas, which have recently become easier to reach due to significant reductions in seasonal ice cover associated with global climate change. Norway, Russia, Canada, Denmark, and other northern countries are in various Stages of developing offshore Arctic programs, and diplomatic squabbles have broken out over territorial rights extending all the way to the North Pole.

Between 1980 and 2000 Alaska accounted for an average one-fifth of U.S. oil production. (4) But with oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline falling by more than two-thirds since a peak in 1988, (4) the recent pressure to drill in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) off the state's north coast has been relentless. Alaska derives at least 90% of its revenues from oil, (5) so law makers in that state--supported by much of the state's population--have pushed hard for offshore authorization. The federal government has also indicated its support, in 2011 expressing a commitment to facilitate development in the OCS region and to expedite offshore permitting in Alaska, assuming that "safety, health, and environmental standards are fully met." (6)

Now the United States has taken a big step toward opening the seas off Alaska to a new round of oil and gas exploration. In a major breakthrough for the petroleum industry and loss for drilling opponents, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) in February 2012 approved Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc.'s oil-spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea, which provides habitat for polar bears, walruses, and other wildlife, and a hunting ground for Alaska Natives who still go whaling in seal-skin boats. (7) Six weeks later the company's spill-response plan for the adjoining Beaufort Sea also was approved. (8)

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith says DOI approval of the plans puts the company on track to launch exploration in the region this summer (final permits to drill must still be obtained). But many critics contend it's not possible to drill safely in the region, given the isolation and harsh weather, and they question how well the plans will protect Arctic health in the event of a spill.

Native Health Concerns

Access to the Alaska OCS has been blocked in recent years mainly by lawyers representing Alaska Natives, who argue that apart from its ecological consequences, offshore drilling could hurt the traditional livelihoods, health, and well-being of these local residents. The Inupiat people have hunted bowhead whales and other marine species in Arctic waters for well over 2,000 years, and half their caloric intake comes from subsistence sources of meat. (9) Health studies of the native population have associated the oil industry's expansion in the North Slope to disruption of the traditional subsistence lifestyle, contributing to rising rates of type 2 diabetes, metabolic problems from changing diets, substance abuse, suicide, and asthma. (9)

Meanwhile, during fall migration bowhead whales have been documented to travel up to 18 miles to avoid sounds they don't like, (10) potentially putting them beyond safe reach of a hunt that is crucial to the Inupiat's cultural identity. "For every additional mile a whaler has to travel, there's more potential for injury or a potentially catastrophic event," says Thomas Lohman, an environmental resource specialist in the North Slope Borough (11) Department of Wildlife Management.

The 2011 exploration season was blocked in part by Alaska Native health concerns hav-ing to do with Shell's air permits sought from the U. …

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