Oil and gas drilling in the Alaskan Arctic

Oil and gas drilling in the Alaskan Arctic

Oil and gas drilling in the Alaskan Arctic

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Absent the success of an eleventh hour legal challenge by environmental groups, Shell will begin exploratory drilling off the coast of northern Alaska this summer. Up to five wells could be drilled in the area — the first time the company has attempted drilling exploratory wells since the 1980s. A spike in oil prices in the early 2000s enticed Shell back to the region, and in 2005 it bid $44 million for Beaufort Sea lease tracts and $2.2 billion for Chukchi Sea prospects in 2008.

In general, offshore oil drilling poses environmental risks, but they are compounded in the Arctic. For example, the Coast Guard does not possess adequate spill response capacity in the region, nor is there a way to effectively clean up a spill in icy waters. Moreover, there is insufficient information about how industrial activity like drilling would affect indigenous subsistence practices (e.g. hunting, fishing), Arctic marine ecosystems and endangered species such as bowhead whales.

In addition, despite Shell’s assurances that it can drill safely in the Arctic, its horrible track record of oil spills in Niger Delta belies that notion. Another crucial point that sometimes gets overlooked in this debate is that pursuing oil to the ends of the earth is exactly what the U.S. should not be doing to safeguard the planet from the harms of climate change. The nation should instead forge ahead on a clean energy strategy for the 21st century; continuing to exploit dirty 20th century energy sources like oil puts us entirely on the wrong path.

That is why Friends of the Earth recently started a petition, signed by thousands of supporters, asking President Obama to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic Ocean. On May 15, these signatures, along with those collected by other environmental groups on this issue, were presented to the President. In all, over one million people agreed that offshore oil drilling in Arctic Alaska is a bad idea. As we approach summer, one thing is certain: many will be watching to see what happens on top of the world.


Photo credit:  Dave Withrow, NOAA

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