‘Deathly’ fears vs. drilling hopes at Arctic oil panel

By Benjamin Hulac | 04/02/2015 07:58 AM EDT

Willie Goodwin — the former mayor of Kotzebue, a city in northwestern Alaska that is home to a little more than 3,200 people — doubts oil and gas crews will ever be able to completely clean up an oil spill in the Arctic, no matter how far technology has advanced.

Willie Goodwin — the former mayor of Kotzebue, a city in northwestern Alaska that is home to a little more than 3,200 people — doubts oil and gas crews will ever be able to completely clean up an oil spill in the Arctic, no matter how far technology has advanced.

"We’re deathly afraid of an oil spill," he said yesterday, talking about the Inupiat people, his tribe, at Resources for the Future’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"You’ll still have in your mind: It smells," said Goodwin, likening spilling oil in the Arctic to tossing a glass of crude into a packed refrigerator and trying to wipe up the mess. "Whether [or not] you clean it up as best you can."


The landscape for oil and gas exploration in the polar region has come more clearly into view in the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, the Interior Department opened the door for Royal Dutch Shell PLC to drill for oil this summer in the Chukchi Sea, approving the federal government’s decision in 2008 to sell oil and gas leases there.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have sued Shell to block its use of a port terminal in Seattle as its Arctic base even as the company is moving a drillship — the Polar Pioneer, currently several hundred miles west of Hawaii — across the Pacific Ocean. Six offshore drilling rigs are in or on their way to the American Arctic, according to Rigzone.com, which tracks offshore rig activity. They include the Noble Discoverer, operated by Shell.

ConocoPhillips and Statoil ASA, the Norwegian firm, have gone the other way, opting not to drill in the area. Chevron Corp. also nixed its Arctic exploration plans in December under "economic uncertainty in the industry."

Arctic drilling advantage: shallow waters

On Friday, the National Petroleum Council (NPC), in a report commissioned by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, said the United States can maintain its position as a top energy player internationally by tapping into Arctic oil and gas pockets (ClimateWire, March 30).

"There is a lot of interest in drilling in the Arctic," said Jan Mares, an analyst at Resources for the Future, who presented a summary of the NPC report yesterday.

To successfully extract oil or gas in offshore polar conditions, drilling crews consider the type of ice they’re dealing with, how long the region in question will be free of ice, and the depth of the water in the drilling zone, according to Mares. The majority of offshore U.S. Arctic drilling opportunities are less than 100 meters deep, the NPC found in its investigation.

Because of this depth, which is shallower than other drilling regions such as the Gulf of Mexico, Mares said, "Most of our Arctic is developable."

He added that Russia is drilling in its Arctic territory and China is an observing member of the Arctic Council, an international body of the eight nations that border the Arctic Circle.

"There are voices among the Alaskan natives that vary" over extracting or leaving fossil fuels untouched, said William Brown, chief environmental officer for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. But, he added, they are all unified in their desire to protect their communities’ natural resources.

"Its effects are magnified in the Arctic, not just wildlife impacts," Brown said of climate change, adding that the federal government is trying to shift away from a fossil fuel reliance, but that process "is not an overnight affair."

‘It really drives me nuts’

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that the Arctic contains about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources that could be recovered. The analysis did not make "economic considerations" in its estimates, instead including results "without reference to costs of exploration and development, which will be important in many of the assessed areas."

Goodwin, the native Alaskan, told a crowd of Washington think tank analysts, advocates and trade association representatives that local residents want a say in what happens off Alaska’s shore, yet historically, government agencies and energy companies have shut them out, he said.

"It really drives me nuts," he said, when companies make plans in Alaska "without asking us to be involved."

Energy firms and public officials have begun to consult him and his peers recently, Goodwin said, but he still worries because an oil spill might punish Alaskan people, local sea lions, walruses, whales and fish, and not distant companies and agencies.

"Come up and ask us," he said. "Bring your hearings up there."

This year, sea ice in the Arctic covered the lowest maximum extent since satellites began tracking polar ice movements in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Some scientists have estimated that summers in the Arctic may be ice-free within 20 to 30 years (ClimateWire, July 16, 2013).

Meanwhile, the slump in oil prices today — Brent crude was trading at $50.09, and West Texas Intermediate was trading at $56.70 as of yesterday at 6:17 p.m. EDT — cast doubt on the financial feasibility of Arctic drilling.

Chevron and ConocoPhillips require oil to be worth $113 to proceed in the Amauligak oil project off the coast of Canada’s Northwest Territories, according to recent work out of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London-based think tank.

BP PLC requires $109 to sanction its Liberty project off the Alaskan coast, and Eni SpA, an Italian energy company, needs oil to reach between $103 and $151 to move forward with its Johan Castberg project in the Barents Sea, the CTI analysis found.