Shell and High Water

Five reasons drilling in the Arctic is a bad idea.

June 16, 2015

Photo: Sarah Sonsthagen/USGS

Despite the blockading efforts of dozens of “kayaktivists,” the Polar Pioneer, Shell’s 400-foot drilling rig, left the port of Seattle yesterday. It’s on its way north to the Chukchi Sea, where later this summer, and for the first time ever, the company could tap the seabed for oil. The paddling activists, who have been staging colorful protests in the bay since May, brought national attention to the behemoth’s plans. While the Coast Guard detained and fined many of them, the kayakers had good reason for taking up oars against the oil giant.

Here are five reasons Shell has no business being in the Arctic.

1) Spills, spills, and more spills.

The Department of the Interior’s environmental impact statement for Shell’s project concluded that if the company drills in the Chukchi Sea, there’s a 75 percent chance (75!!!) of a large spill. (That figure doesn’t include the also-very-likely “small” spills of 1,000 barrels or less.) Those are really, really good odds, meaning they are terrible.

2) They can’t clean up after themselves.

Oil spills are never easy to deal with, but the Arctic Ocean is a particularly hairy place to deal with a disaster. The weather is unpredictable, ice renders tools like booms and skimmers useless, and oil can get trapped beneath sea ice. Plus, who’s going to rush to the scene? The region doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a spill response—the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away, and the nearest airport is in Anchorage, more than 700 miles away.

3) Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Shell’s track record up north is a shoddy one. Its attempt to drill there in 2012 was fraught with mishaps, including the snafu involving its rig, the Kulluk, which ran aground during a storm, threatening the lives of the workers onboard. Another rig, the Noble Discoverer, had numerous mechanical issues and nearly got beached itself. Noble Drilling, the company responsible for operating both rigs, paid more than $12 million after pleading guilty to eight felonies that led to pollution and unsafe working conditions. At the time, these incidents proved that drilling in the Arctic is extremely dangerous and, well, they still do. 

4) I got some news to tell ya…about some wild, wild life.

The Chukchi Sea is essential habitat for a diverse array of wildlife—including many endangered species—such as polar bears, ringed seals, Pacific walrus, puffins, and migratory whales. Alaska Native communities rely on the Arctic Ocean for food and age-old cultural traditions. Oil exploration alone would disrupt this fragile ecosystem, and a spill would devastate it.

5) The climes, they are a-changin’.

Drilling in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, would contradict President Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change. A report released this week by the International Energy Alliance found that current emissions targets—including the United States’—aren’t going to prevent global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius. The Arctic may hold about one fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Now is the time to invest in clean energy sources, not look for more fossil fuels to dig up—and definitely not in risky, remote ecosystems already reeling from our collective carbon mess-up. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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