A Rush to Expand Oil Drilling in the Arctic

Experts worry about potential risks as nations move to exploit the region.

Waves crash over Royal Dutch Shell's conical drilling unit Kulluk, where it sits aground Jan. 1, 2013, on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska. A unified command, consisting of U.S. Coast Guardsmen; federal, state and local partners; and industry representatives, was established in response to the grounding.
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But not everyone is convinced the rush to the region is warranted or desirable. Despite recent news events, polar routes are not exactly commercially viable, says Jean-Paul Rodrigue, professor at Hofstra University's Department of Global Studies and Geography. The harsh Arctic conditions and lack of infrastructure means the costs are high and the benefits marginal, he notes. Indeed, the Kulluk incident demonstrates this point. Royal Dutch Shell reportedly spent more than $5 billion on its Arctic drilling operation, brought in an armada of 20 vessels to support the two oil rigs, and coordinated more than one thousand flights. In the end, the company wasn't able to complete even one well after being delayed by Arctic conditions.

For environmental groups, the harsh environment and potential for accidents are reasons to avoid industrialization of the Arctic altogether. To Gustavo Ampugnani, Arctic team leader at Greenpeace, last year's Shell incident demonstrated that industry is not equipped to exploit the region safely. "Even with normal weather conditions for the Arctic, the company suffered a lot of mishaps and setbacks," says Ampugnani, referring to a documented list of problems Shell encountered even before the storm grounded the Kulluk during transit. There were approximately 143,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products aboard the rig, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. "A significant accident or spill in the remote and inhospitable Alaskan Arctic could have catastrophic consequences on fragile ecosystems and the people who depend on the ocean for subsistence," warned a Department of the Interior review of Shell's program.

But last month, the company resubmitted an exploration plan for further drilling off Alaska's northern coast for federal review. For now, energy firms, rather than government officials, appear to be setting the pace for Arctic exploitation.

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