Shell’s Drilling Plans Expose Just How Unprepared The U.S. Is For A Melting Arctic

In this March 2010 photo, the 399-foot U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star as it sits moored at a dock in Seattle. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ELAINE THOMPSON, FILE
In this March 2010 photo, the 399-foot U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star as it sits moored at a dock in Seattle. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ELAINE THOMPSON, FILE

As Shell moves forward with its plans to drill in remote Arctic waters, the U.S. Coast Guard is being forced to divert resources — including a national security ship normally used for monitoring drug trafficking — to ensure that the oil and gas company sticks to its safety and environmental requirements.

“That for me is the opportunity cost,” Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, told Reuters in an interview last week. “It means you do less somewhere else in order to supplement activity in the Arctic.”

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Shell’s newest push to expand its drilling operations in the Arctic comes at a time when the future of the region is in flux — the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of world, and the extent of the Arctic’s sea ice continues to shrink, so much so that National Geographic had to redraw its latest atlas map of the Arctic Ocean to account for the low extent of sea ice.

As outlined in a recent Department of Defense report, a melting Arctic presents the United States with number of opportunities — for tourism, natural resource exploitation, and military activities — but those opportunities aren’t without their downsides. The remoteness of the Arctic, combined with erractic weather and scarce resources, makes Arctic operations “expensive and dangerous for military forces that are unprepared for the austere operating environment,” the DoD said.

Such conditions are partially what drove Shell from the Arctic during its last attempt at drilling in the region, in 2012. On December 29, a Coast Guard helicopter had to rescue 18 Shell workers from an oil rig caught in a storm that exhibited sustained winds of 57 miles per hour and swells 30 feet high.

To monitor and protect against such incidents this time around, the Coast Guard is deploying five ships to the Arctic. It has also set up a helicopter based in Deadhorse, Alaska, meant to support Shell’s drilling operations. According to Reuters, the helicopter at that base would normally be used for search and rescue in the Kodiak, which has seen an uptick in recreational activity in recent years.

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But even as traffic is increasing in the Arctic (according to the U.S. Coast Guard, twice as many vessels now navigate in or through the Bering Strait as in 1998) the United States’ Arctic infrastructure continues to lag behind — especially in the area of icebreakers, highly specialized ships that allow for Arctic exploration and rescue operations. Russia, which currently lays claim to some 463,000 square miles of Arctic land and sea, has a fleet of 27 large-scale icebreakers, some nuclear-powered. The United States has just one heavy polar icebreaker — and it’s already more than 40 years old. Though the United States technically does have two additional icebreakers, one is a heavy icebreaker that is currently disabled and the other is a medium icebreaker intended mainly for scientific expeditions. Shell, for its part, has two icebreakers as part of its Arctic support fleet.

The Coast Guard is responsible for handling any oil spills that happen in U.S. coastal waters — meaning if there’s an oil spill during Shell’s Arctic drilling operation, the Coast Guard will be in charge of conducting year-round emergency monitoring and response, something difficult to do in icy waters without proper ice-breaking equipment. In a report released last year, the National Research Council found that the United States lacks the infrastructure to properly handle an Arctic oil spill. In its assessment of Shell’s current Arctic drilling plans, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) concluded that there was a 75 percent chance of one or more large spills occurring.

Still, despite unpredictable Arctic conditions and a resource-scarce Coast Guard, Shell is attempting to convince regulators that restrictions preventing them from drilling deeper than 3,000 feet below the Chukchi Sea should be lifted, according to E&E; News. Ann Pickard, Shell’s Executive Vice President, is reportedly “unfazed” by reports chiding the company for failing to assess the risks associated with Arctic drilling.

“I enjoy the challenge,” Pickard recently told Bloomberg of drilling in extreme environments. Of the extreme Arctic weather, she said it’s no different — and perhaps better — than other places where Shell drills, like the North Sea. “We know how to operate in places where there’s challenging weather,” she said.