Canada’s prime minister is very determined to see Canada become, in his words, an energy super power. The great eye of Stephen Harper has now come to rest on the Arctic.
As the ice sheets melt from global warming, new areas are opening up for drilling in the Canadian high Arctic. Big oil companies revel in the chance to work in the region — dreaming of finding the next big elephant oil field. Yet the oil industry has a sorry record when it comes to oil spills. If there was an oil spill in the Arctic, what would be the impact and could it ever be cleaned up?
A consortium lead by Canada’s Imperial Oil is planning new Arctic exploration in deep waters of the Beaufort Sea. “Under the current schedule, drilling could start before the end of this decade,” Jeffery Jones of Globe and Mail reported, “Imperial and Exxon each have 25 per cent of the venture, and BP the remainder.” Both Exxon and BP have been involved in major spills before.
Laura Moss from Mother Nature Networks reminds us that BP’s Gulf oil spill in 2010 was a singular, searing event for the environment. “The Gulf oil spill is officially the largest accidental spill in world history. It began when an oil well a mile below the surface of the Gulf blew out, causing an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 people.” A tolal of 206 million gallons of oil spilt into the ocean. “The long-term effects of the oil and the 1.82 million gallons of dispersant used on this fragile ecosystem remain unknown, but experts say they could devastate the Gulf coast for years to come.”
Exxon had a major spill off the Alaskan coast 25 years ago when its supertanker struck a reef. “The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill—which fouled the waters of Prince William Sound, coated more than a thousand miles of pristine coastline, and killed hundreds of thousands of birds, fish and animals—has become a symbol of human-caused environmental disasters,” according to Larry West from About.com.
Despite all the money spent on cleanup, oil is still being found in the waters and on the beaches. A 2007 study conducted by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that 26, 000 gallons of oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill was still trapped in the sand along the Alaska shoreline. “The oil sometimes clogs the blow holes of whales and dolphins, making it impossible for the animals to breathe properly and disrupting their ability to communicate.” West reported. “Oil coats the fur of otters and seals, leaving them vulnerable to hypothermia.”
Greenpeace has launched a major campaign to halt the rush to the Arctic. They are hoping to have as many as 6 million signatures on a petition calling for the protection of the Arctic. Despite protestations from Arctic states making overlapping claims of sovereignty, Greenpeace believes the Arctic belongs to no one and should remain off limits to exploration.
Greenpeace believes governments know how difficult it is to clean up oil spills in the far north. “Previously classified government documents say dealing with oil spills in the freezing waters is ‘almost impossible’ and inevitable mistakes would shatter the fragile Arctic environment.”
Shell Oil plans to return to the Arctic this year in U.S. waters of Chukchi sea, despite the shaky start to its exploration program last year when its main drilling ship ran aground — an accident that environmentalists said vividly illustrated the perils of drilling in the north’s frigid waters. The drilling program is also being challenged in the courts.
Arctic drilling is also moving ahead in Russia waters and that country is clearly not afraid to use its muscle to keep away protesters, as illustrated by the arrest of Greenpeace’s Arctic 30 last year.
As for Harper, it’s full speed ahead. He is a proponent of “use it or lose it” and this year Canada is head of the Arctic Council. So now the wolf is in charge of the henhouse because for Harper melting of Arctic ice is not a sign of what’s wrong with burning fossil fuels, but an opportunity to go drill for more.
It is clear that drilling in the Arctic could lead to devastating and permanent consequences. The Arctic countries that are in the race to extract as much oil as they can may get some short term benefit from their drilling. But no matter how much money they make they will never have enough to buy the world another Arctic.