Arctic Offshore Drilling Begins

“It is a moment of major promise and considerable danger,” says the New York Times. Indeed. In July, Royal Dutch Shell will begin offshore drilling in the Arctic. Big business vs. environmental protection is an all-too-familiar story. And as the Times tells it, this particular version includes plenty of lobbying, election-year political calculus and resigned frustration on the part of drilling’s opponents. Here are some quick takeaways based on the Times piece (unless otherwise cited.)

Shell will be the first company to drill test wells offshore in Alaska, but ExxonMobil (among others) are lining up in the frenzy to strike it big in what’s thought to be the last great frontier for oil production. Despite common goals, lobbying approaches were different. While Exxon spent millions to fight any legislation that concerned climate change, Shell realized that in order to get access to offshore drilling, they would have to cozy up to the White House and deemed it worthy to join the United States Climate Action Partnership.

The Arctic means different things to different people. What is an icy, unknown territory to Shell is a familiar home to the Inuit and other Alaskans. Former North Shore Mayor Edward S. Itta has been the primary spokesperson for Inuit people whose subsistence lifestyle and coexistence with wildlife could be at odds with Shell’s plans. “We consider both the sea and the land and the Inupiat Eskimos to be one,” he once told a government panel. “Therefore, the fate of the ocean is our fate.”  To reassure residents and amongst other promises, Shell insists that the minute they "spot a walrus from the rig" they'll halt operations.

Other important points:

  • Some Inuit and Alaskan residents do support offshore drilling, which they view as an opportunity to bolster the state’s struggling economy
  • While Shell is working on containment systems that mimic those used to cap the Deepwater Horizon well; there are ongoing concerns about how fast any spill could be responded to given technical challenges of operating in the Arctic
  • As an upcoming Forbes piece illustrates, the U.S. has an oil addiction so fierce that the Deepwater Horizon disaster wasn’t enough to deter Shell from offshore drilling plans - or the government giving its approval
  • Summing up the political moment, a senior U.S. official told the Times that “We can’t stop [offshore Arctic drilling]…we can only make it less bad.”

When it comes to energy, how much will be too much to pay? What does "too much" mean to different people? We may soon find out.