By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor
The heat is on in the Arctic. This region is now warming at a rate faster than twice the global average—known as Arctic amplification. Consequently, the ice that covers the North Pole and surrounding areas, and melts to its lowest extent each September, has been disappearing at an alarming rate.
In September 2016, the National Snow & Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, released a report stating that the Arctic sea ice extent was at its lowest—tied with 2007 as the second lowest extent on record since satellite imaging began in 1979. Center director Mark Serreze told The Guardian that even though this year didn’t set a record, the overall downward trend has been reinforced and there is no evidence of recovery. He added that he wouldn’t be surprised if, in summers, the Arctic becomes essentially ice-free by 2030. However, Andrew Revkin recently pointed out that there is persistent uncertainty about how long it will take to reach a September with an ice-free Arctic Ocean.
As of now, scientists can confidently say that there is much more open ocean in the Arctic than there used to be. This new open ocean provides opportunities for development and exploitation, spawning environmental and political debates that reveal shortcomings in the lack of centralized protection and control in the region—a region packed with untapped natural resources.
Sea ice is frozen ocean water. In contrast to glaciers, ice shelves, and icebergs, which originate on land but may float in the ocean, sea ice forms and grows in the ocean. It reflects most of the solar heat back into space and provides a natural air conditioning system, thus playing an important role in keeping the polar region cool and moderating global climate. It also makes most of the Arctic inaccessible to navigation and, therefore, exploitation. However, as climate change alters the region’s topography, accessibility is starting to change.
A few days ago, a luxury cruise ship completed a historic 32-day Northwest Passage journey via the Canadian Arctic and Greenland—a route that has traditionally been blocked by ice. As reported by the Washington Post, “The once forbidding Arctic region, home to polar bears and ice-covered seas, has melted enough that this summer it’s open not only for shipping but high-end tourism.”
Interestingly, the luxury cruise ship completed its journey only few days after Canadian explorers announced they had discovered the wreck of the HMS Terror, a vessel that got stuck in ice and sank while trying to get through the Northwest Passage 168 years ago. According to The Guardian, the search for the HMS Terror “was launched by Canadian former prime minister Stephen Harper as part of a broader plan to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic and promote development of its resources—including vast reserves of oil and natural gas, which will be easier to exploit as the Arctic warms and sea ice disappears.”
Indeed, as the ice keeps dwindling, combined pressure to control, exploit, and protect the Arctic increases on Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark. These eight countries—or Arctic Nations—are those with territory above the Arctic Circle. Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway have all been trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic, which is believed to hold, among other riches, up to a quarter of the Earth’s oil and natural gas reserves. In August, the Russian government announced that it had delivered ample scientific data to the United Nations to back its claim to 463,000 square miles of Arctic territory, with the expectation that their bid will start to be assessed in the fall. Altogether, the United Nations is currently evaluating Russian, Danish, and Canadian claims to own considerable areas of the Arctic seabed.
Drilling to exploit oil and natural gas reserves in the Arctic makes it vulnerable to major environmental risks, including oil spills and releases of methane and black carbon, two potent greenhouses gases. Last year, Shell halted drilling in the Arctic amid slumping oil prices and continuous protests, including those led by activists in kayaks, or “kayaktivists,” who paddled in front of an icebreaker to block its path. At around the same time, citing current market conditions and low industry interest, the Obama administration canceled planned lease sales to oil companies in the Arctic and denied extensions to existing leases.
This year, Norway awarded Arctic drilling licenses to 13 oil companies, leading to a public outcry motivated by concerns over possible spills. A few days ago, plans to allow drilling near the Lofoten Islands, located across the turbulent waters of the Norwegian Sea and far above the Arctic Circle in an area crucial to fish spawning and containing the largest cold-water coral reef in the world, were halted by the Norwegian government following pressure by environmentalists and local fishermen. At the same time, Statoil ASA, a Norwegian multinational oil and gas company, said that it was pushing deeper into the Arctic, shopping for Barents Sea drilling licenses in a bid to “add resources and maintain output” over the coming decades. In contrast, the Russian government recently announced, in light of macroeconomic instability, a temporary moratorium on new offshore oil and gas licenses for drilling on the country’s Arctic shelf.
Arctic drilling seems to follow a pattern of stop and go and, as it involves different economies and different regulations, will move according to complex ups and downs depending on both regional and global conditions. For example, Russia and Norway—energy-producing economies—are more likely to keep drilling at larger scale. At the same time, the oil exploration efforts of Russia and Norway differ in term of regulatory stringency. Because of the extreme climatic and topographical Arctic conditions, along with the downturn in oil prices, drilling in the Arctic is not particularly attractive yet—despite the melting of the sea ice, it remains spotty. Short days, harsh cold climate, strong winds, rough seas, and absence of roads, rails, and ports make the Arctic inaccessible most of the year. Even at the height of summer, wind chills and moving sea ice create inhospitable conditions. So, what keeps the industry moving ahead with its erratic plans to drill in treacherous waters? The simple answer is proven reserves—the promise of unknowable amounts of oil still under the seafloor, and the hope that this oil could be recoverable, when the Arctic opens up even more.
Therefore, drilling continues at selected locations. The United States government in August gave Royal Dutch Shell the final permit to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s northwest coast for the first time in more than two decades. White House spokesman Frank Benenati said the administration has invested heavily in renewable energy so that the U.S. can transition off fossil. He added: “But it’s also true that we cannot make that transition overnight, which is why we have taken steps to ensure safe and responsible development of our domestic energy resources that benefits our economy and enhances global energy security, with safety remaining paramount.” This new drilling operation may harm Arctic wildlife and lend a hand to the increased likelihood of oil spills. Moreover, the memory of the Kulluk wreck is still fresh and reminds of other dangers linked to oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic; Kulluk, Shell’s drilling rig, went aground on a small island south of Kodiak, Alaska, at the end of 2012 after the towing line parted in heavy Arctic weather. In 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard said in its final report that the accident was due to the company’s “inadequate assessment and management of risks.”
In addition to the unproven ability of oil companies to prevent oil spills, there is another concern that needs to be emphasized for all Arctic drilling: as pointed out in a recent research article, Arctic drilling is incompatible with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. When it comes to climate change, the thinning of the Arctic sea ice can be viewed as the “canary in the coal mine.” Therefore, let’s keep the Arctic oil under the seafloor.
Disclaimer—The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not represent those of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Full disclaimer here.
This post was updated on 27 Sep. 2016. Due to an editorial error, the original text incorrectly referred to the Kulluk wreck as an oil spill.