There's Less Summer Sea Ice in the Arctic Than Ever (So Now We're Drilling There)

Posted by Dave Burdick

What do we do when we realize that temperatures in the Arctic are rising four times faster than the global average, causing Arctic ice to recede to record-low levels? 

We drill! Via National Geographic:

Climate scientists have long said there will be winners and losers from climate change. Nations with territory in the Arctic, where temperatures are warming four times faster than the global average, could be the biggest winners by far. The Arctic could contain as much as 22 percent of the world's hydrocarbon deposits, with some 29 billion barrels of oil and more than 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas thought to lie off the Alaska coast alone. North America's largest oil field, Prudhoe Bay, in comparison, held an estimated 25 billion barrels.

Shell already began drilling pilot holes up there and is waiting to drill exploratory wells. First, its cleanup barge must complete renovations and be approved by the Coast Guard, after which it'll be towed up to the site to await disaster. 

And "the Arctic Ocean [is] now projected to be ice-free during the summer by mid-century," so things will get even better for Shell. Crowed one Shell Alaska VP, "I will be one of those persons most cheering for an endless summer in Alaska." 

And what could go wrong in a tight operation that has only, so far this summer, had these hangups?

First, heavy ice floes delayed drilling plans. Then, last month, a drill ship dragged anchor and went adrift, nearly colliding with the Alaskan shore. No damage occurred, but the accident raised questions about Shell’s readiness to manage the challenging Arctic conditions, which include months of darkness, extreme winds and massive ice floes.

Shell has also asked the Environmental Protection Agency for revisions to its air emissions permits.

The biggest holdup has come from delays in revamping an oil containment barge called the Arctic Challenger, which is equipped with a dome that could be fitted over a leak to stop spillage in the event of an accident. The barge, which is a vital part of the spill response plan approved by the federal government, remains in the port of Bellingham, Wash., as workers make last-minute fixes.

The company had hoped to finish work on the barge by Aug. 15, but the refitting has been complicated by three small oil spills caused by leaky hydraulic systems.

So, to recap the very short, probably not worrisome list: that's just a drill ship that they're not great at controlling, air emissions regulations that had to be waived (here's a failed petition with more on that) and small leaks—small—related to the cleanup vehicle

Oops, also that it's pretty touch-and-go up there, so Shell had to stop drilling almost as soon as it started, illustrating why "Chukchi Sea oil likely will be among the most expensive oil in the world to produce and transport to markets." 

Because of the delays, Shell has asked for an extension of the drilling window. The window was set by the Department of the Interior based on the timing of re-emerging sea ice—that is, when it would become difficult or dangerous to maneuver in the Arctic Sea. Here's some useful wording on the rationale from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management:

Among the conditions of approval is a measure designed to mitigate the risk of an end-of-season oil spill by requiring Shell to leave sufficient time to implement cap and containment operations as well as significant clean-up before the onset of sea ice, in the event of a loss of well control. Given current technology and weather forecasting capabilities, Shell must cease drilling into zones capable of flowing liquid hydrocarbons 38 days before the first-date of ice encroachment over the drill site. Based on a 5-year analysis of historic weather patterns, BOEM anticipates November 1 as the earliest anticipated date of ice encroachment. The 38-day period would also provide a window for the drilling of a relief well, should one be required.

Does that sound important to you? 

Photo via NASA Goddard Photo and Video.