By Margaret Hedderman
Shell Oil Co. is seeking to extend its drilling exploration permit in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea by another two weeks. Due to estimates of sea ice forming by November 1st, the oil company’s permit currently only allows for exploration until September 24th. Largely due to setbacks in the production of safety equipment, Shell has yet to begin exploratory drilling. Shell’s operation this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas is the first offshore oil drilling attempt in the last twenty years.
The Chukchi Sea is 230,000 square miles in the Arctic Ocean, off the coast of Northwest Alaska. Heavy ice only allows for boats to navigate the sea four months of the year. It is home to many endangered and threatened species including the polar bear, bowhead whale, ringed seal, and numerous species of waterfowl. It is also estimated to contain 30 billion barrels of oil and gas.
Until now it has been deemed to dangerous to attempt drilling, but because of the rapid rate of ice melt due to climate change, oil companies have been clamoring to get at the Chukchi shelf. If a spill were to happen, an 11-24% chance in the nearby Beaufort Sea, the rough winter conditions (hurricane force winds, 10-ft waves, and below freezing temperatures) would make clean up next to impossible.
Shell’s summer operation has been stop and go from the beginning. A major stipulation in the company’s permit required them to supply an oil spill containment barge, a ship that is not yet completed. According to a recent news report, Shell intends to begin drilling before the barge arrives – though not in areas containing oil or hydrocarbon liquids.
The Natural Resources Defense Council published a short overview about the high risk of an oil spill and the destruction it would cause on the ecosystem.
While the government claims that there has
never been a crude oil spill in the Alaskan or
Beaufort Seas, 77 offshore spills of toxic substances
were reported in just two years during offshore
drilling and exploratory and development
activities, according to the Alaska Department of
Environmental Conservation spill database for
1989 to 1990. Spills are an everyday occurrence in
Arctic oil drilling: the oil industry reported 4,534
spills across Alaska’s North Slope and Beaufort
Sea from 1996 to 2004, involving more than 1.9
million gallons of diesel fuel, oil, acid, biocide,
ethylene glycol, drilling fluid, and other materials.
Most crude oil and refined petroleum product
spills on the tundra took place during break-up
and freeze-up, the times of greatest biological
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has yet to approve Shell’s appeal.