President Barack Obama’s decision to support continued exploration in the often ice-choked U.S. Arctic Ocean, while trying to lock up development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, comes with a glaring irony.
After all, many believe a severe oil spill in the remote ocean above Alaska would be far more catastrophic than one on land.
But a comparison of two apparently oil-rich areas on opposite sides of Alaska’s Arctic — ANWR to the east and Royal Dutch Shell’s Burger prospect 70 miles off the coast of Northwest Alaska in the Chukchi Sea — shows a mixed bag of pros and cons.
Which has more oil? Uncertain
The overall lease-planning area in the Chukchi Sea isestimated to contain 15.4 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and gas liquids. At today’s prices, the gross value runs about $750 billion. Shell officials have sized up the Burger prospect’s potential by comparing it to Prudhoe Bay, the most productive oil field on the continent with more than 17 billion barrels produced and counting.
Meanwhile, ANWR is considered the nation’s last hope for a giant, conventional discovery on land. It’s estimatedto contain a mean of 10.4 billion barrels, making its gross value about $500 billion today. But the estimate is based on 30-year-old data, gathered using two-dimensional technology. The state is fighting the federal government in court for an update — using far more specific three-dimensional seismic tests.
Where is spill cleanup easiest? ANWR
No proven system exists for collecting oil spills from the ice that blankets the Arctic Ocean much of the year. Shell has taken important steps to prevent and stop a spill, but anyone following their Arctic drilling campaign has gotten a sense of the danger posed by nature in Alaska, particularly when a powerful storm in late 2012 blew Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig aground. Sure, the grounding happened far from the Arctic Ocean, but the event highlighted the vicious blows that rake the 49th State. Massive ice sheets also have the potential to gouge facilities such as seafloor pipelines. Furthermore, the Burger prospect is extremely remote. Getting backup resources to a spill, if needed, could pose a major challenge.
Which helps the state treasury most? ANWR
On federal land, the state could employ its oil production tax and may be entitled to half the royalties and lease income, with the federal government getting the other half. As for offshore development, the state would currently receive no production tax or royalties. But given that Louisiana and other states share some of the revenues from offshore production with the federal government, many say Alaska can make a convincing argument in Congress that it should be similarly rewarded.
Which threatens wildlife more? Uncertain
In ANWR, the Porcupine caribou herd, Alaska’s second largest, gets most of the national attention because it uses the coastal plain to give birth to its calves. But with sea ice becoming undependable, the coastal plain of ANWR is also an increasingly key habitat for denning polar bear mothers giving birth and raising cubs. Polar bears could be harmed by oil exploration even if there is not a single well drilled: Seismic tests that create large amounts of underground noise are prohibited within a mile of known polar bear dens because they create too much noise, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But at sea, oil-related industrial activity can disturb marine mammals and people, with effects including ship strikes, leaking fluids, even bird-distracting industrial lights. Whales, seals and walruses are famously sensitive to noise, so there are deep concerns about loud seismic booms and frequent engine hums upsetting the animals. If there was an oil spill outside of those protected areas, it remains unknown where that oil would go, but animal populations in the vicinity include polar bears and tens of thousands of walruses that now head ashore near the Chukchi Sea village of Point Lay.
Which development is more likely to happen? Neither
Sorry, Alaska. The state’s best hope of opening ANWR may have come and gone a decade ago, with Sen. Ted Stevens at his most powerful and Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress. Today, with America producing record amounts of oil and the shale revolution in the Lower 48 still rolling, the chances of ANWR opening to oil and gas development anytime soon seem increasingly dim. As for Shell’s prospect, proving up the oil is just the beginning. The project would still take years to complete and cost billions of dollars, with an offshore production platform and hundreds of miles of pipelines needing permitting and construction.
-Alex DeMarban/Yereth Rosen, Alaska Dispatch News
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Land dispute causes development ban in southern Nunavut, Canada, CBC News
Finland: New environment minister blocks peat bog protection, Yle News
Sweden: Prospecting Boom Squeezes Sami Land, Radio Sweden
United States: Arctic Ocean may be next as Alaska officials seethe over ANWR move, Alaska Dispatch News