Ice, Cold, Ecological Risks May Hamper Arctic Oil Rush

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
August 24, 2007
Polar Power Play | Part Two of a Two-Part Series
Part One: "Arctic Oil Rush Sparks Battles Over Seafloor"

The prospect of vast oil and gas reserves beneath the Arctic Ocean has prompted countries to begin evaluating exploration options to assess what's really at stake.

By one estimate, 400 billion barrels of oil might lie beneath the Arctic seabed.

"The Arctic Commons area is many times larger than Iraq and could contain significant hydrocarbon reserves, with none of the attendant … political risks" of the Middle East, the industry group United Oil and Gas Consortium Management Corporation asserts on its Web site.

But even as observers debate about who really owns the Arctic and will have rights to the potential cornucopia, other experts are warning that dangerous ice, extreme cold, and the risk of environmental catastrophe will pose serious barriers.

If the Price Is Right

Ice-related problems begin at the exploration stage. Typical seabed oil exploration involves towing an array of giant air guns behind a research vessel.

The guns make a loud noise that penetrates the ocean floor, allowing seismologists to measure the way sound travels and thus map underlying rock structures, including rocks that might trap pockets of fossil fuels.

Such exploration projects can be done efficiently in the Arctic today only in areas that are ice-free in the summer.

When ice is present, the air guns can be towed behind an icebreaker vessel, said Jim Swift, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (see photos of exploring Arctic ice).

But often the icebreaker's wake is full of floating ice chunks that can impact the air guns.

"I'm glad it wasn't my equipment," said Swift, who has been on an icebreaker towing such an array. "It takes a lot of battering."

If exploration attempts do find the predicted oil, drilling beneath the ice poses another hurdle.

It's not possible to build a drilling rig on top of the ice, because the ice moves. But for the same reason, a stationary platform would have to withstand enormous pressures from drifting pack ice.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, presumes that technological ingenuity could find ways around the exploration and drilling problems.

"If the price is very, very high, I imagine somebody will find a way to produce that oil," he said.

But the Arctic is "a very fragile ecosystem, and we haven't demonstrated a great capacity to operate there without doing a lot of damage," Pope added.

"The fact is that when it's 20 degrees below zero [Fahrenheit, or -29 degrees Celsius], it's very difficult to operate complex industrial facilities."

Lubricants, metals, and other materials are likely to break down repeatedly in such extreme cold, he said, producing very "dirty" operations.

Joel Darmstadter is an economist at the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C.

He added that an oil spill in the remote Arctic might be considerably more difficult to clean up than the 1989 Exxon Valdez mishap in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

(Related news: "Alaska Oil Spill Fuels Concerns Over Arctic Wildlife, Future Drilling" [March 20, 2006].)

Another problem is that the Arctic is a much more complex and interconnected environment than was once believed.

As recently as 1990 it was thought that ice cover kept the Arctic Ocean static and predictable, said Kelly Falkner, a professor of oceanography from Oregon State University now on temporary assignment with the National Science Foundation.

But, she said, scientists are now realizing that it's much more dynamic, which means that problems in one part of the Arctic may have unexpected consequences in another.

"We really ought to think this out," she said.

Future Power

Falkner thinks that the solution may lie in looking at what was done two generations ago in Antarctica.

At that time countries set aside their individual claims and devoted the continent to international science.

But Darmstadter, of Resources for the Future, thinks the issue depends on how valuable any potential oil reserves turn out to be.

"Let's ask ourselves how much oil and gas is likely to be found [and] what difference it will make in the energy situation," he said.

"If the answer is 'relatively little,' then I think one is in a strong position to argue [whether it's] really worth taking a risk.

"On the other hand, if there's a high probability of finding a lot of oil, that would weaken the position of the ecologists and conservationists."

Pope, of the Sierra Club, hopes that people will eventually steer toward Darmstadter's "relatively little" need for Arctic oil.

To do that, he said, all that's required is for us to be "vaguely sensible" and to "stop wasting oil."

"If you say that what you really need is not oil but ways to drive to work," Pope said, "I'm pretty sure we can find ways to get to work that will be cheaper than using Arctic oil."

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