As global warming began to melt millions of square kilometers worth of ice sheets in the Arctic, the oil industry got giddy: oooh new drilling prospects!
Companies such as Royal Dutch Shell ignored all kinds of warnings and set sail for the North despite its inexperience in such hostile conditions.
What hostile conditions? Well, the Arctic is freezing cold. Ice is everywhere. Winds are fierce and there is only a small window of time, the summer months, to feasibly operate in the region before ice marches back. The remote, inhospitable location also makes it extremely difficult to handle emergencies.
Imagine a pipeline spill that happens toward the end of summer. Stopping the flow would be nearly impossible because resources would not be able to be swiftly mobilized. And the difficulty of responding to emergencies in the Arctic is likely beyond anything oil companies have faced elsewhere.
Oil also behaves differently in freezing conditions, setting oil companies up for countless unknowns when a spill happens. And a spill will happen. Countless studies of the region from both the oil industry and environmental groups claim that spills are inevitable.
Who knows how tools and operators will react to the region’s violent conditions. It’s not the Gulf of Mexico, after all, where an explosion was disastrously handled by BP in 2010, leading to 87 days of gushing oil at a rate of 62,000 barrels a day.
One barrel is about 42 gallons, so that’s roughly 2.6 million gallons a day. A company can’t afford 87 days to squash a problem in the Arctic because the conditions would force them to leave until the next open season.
Consequently, a spill could lead to uninterrupted gushing for a year or more, tainting the water for years, ruining the habitat for countless species and threatening the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of people who live there.
And then there’s the issue of climate change.
Climate change granted oil companies access to the Arctic, and if the newly accessible oil were burned it would unleash more carbon into the atmosphere.
But that oil hasn’t been burned and likely won’t be burned in the near future.
For now at least, there is some sign of respite for the region. Shell finally gave up its plans for the Arctic after 9 years because conditions were too harsh and its exploratory drilling efforts revealed too little.
This is a major, but by no means definitive, victory. It keeps oil companies out of a pristine environment for the time being, sends forbidding messages to other interested players with less expertise and galvanizes environmental groups like Greenpeace.
Generally, though, the oil industry has demonstrated that it has no intention of stopping its extraction rampage until it burns every last ounce of fossil fuel on Earth.
If that happens, humanity will far surpass the threshold for manageable emissions and usher in dire consequences.
As Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker wrote, “To hold warming to less than two degrees Celsius, the best estimates available suggest that total emissions will have to be kept under a trillion tons of carbon. The world has already consumed around two-thirds of this budget. If current trends continue, the last third will be used up within the next few decades.”
So stopping exploitation of the Arctic is only one part of the solution. Extraction around the world has to be dramatically slowed.
It seems hard but it has to be done. There’s no other way.
As the international director of Greenpeace, Kumi Naido said at the Social Good Summit, "This struggle is fundamentally about securing our children and their children's future."