Oil rig grounding a reminder of Arctic's high stakes


A Greenpeace activist covers the logo of the Shell oil company to protest on May 10, 2012 against the heading of the an icebreaker for Shell's Arctic oil drilling project in the north of Alaska.


Michal Cizek

EDITOR'S NOTE: With the searing image of Shell’s big drilling rig up against Alaska’s frozen, rocky shoreline and a relentless, powerful surf crashing against it, the world was offered a horrifying glimpse this month of how the Arctic can leave even the best laid plans smashed on the rocks.

It is an image worth pondering and a reality worth remembering as Shell vows to push forward this year with its plan to officially begin drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic and its ambitious hopes to tap into some of the largest unexploited reserves in the world.

Global warming has led to a historic level of surface melt of sea ice and has subsequently opened the Arctic for oil exploration and shipping. Environmentalists and native populations now worry that a big oil spill in the Arctic would devastate a fragile environment that the whole world relies on as a central cooling system for the planet, and which the traditional Inuit Eskimos rely on for subsistence hunting and fishing.

A GlobalPost Special Report titled, “The Arctic Melt: Oil Rush at the Top of the World,” has followed this story throughout the year. As part of the reporting team, I traveled through Alaska’s North Slope, the Chukchi Sea, and the tiny islands and coastal villages of the Bering Straight. I was there to capture one of the last great wild places on earth and to document an intense struggle that involves a jockeying for vast resources by the eight Arctic nations, by big oil companies, and by a native people intent on preserving their way of life and the delicate ecosystem that sustains it.

Nothing drove home more just how high the stakes are than seeing that Shell rig pinned against the rocks. Tom Ashbrook, host of WBUR’s ‘On Point,’ a great journalist and former editor of mine at The Boston Globe, worked in his early years on the Alaska pipeline. On his NPR syndicated radio talk show, Ashbrook moderated one of the smartest discussions on the Arctic I have heard. As Ashbrook pointed out, Shell succeeded in rescuing the vessel this time, but what if they had failed? And what if it was a tanker filled with oil?

GlobalPost contributing columnist, Crocker Snow Jr., a journalist now at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, has long been lured by the beauty, drama, and the potential of the ‘top of the world.’ He travels regularly throughout the Arctic and was last there this fall. He offered this analysis as a guest post to GroundTruth.

More from GlobalPost: US far behind in race for Arctic assets


By Crocker Snow Jr.

BOSTON – ‘Big Oil’ has big work ahead in the Arctic regions in the year to come.

The unexpected grounding of Shell Oil's huge ocean drilling rig near Kodiak Island during a winter storm in the Gulf of Alaska on New Year's Eve has put to rest any assumptions that all things Arctic are under control. It underscores the need for more careful, even skeptical, international attention rather than any posture of benign neglect.

The new year will present great challenges, particularly for Shell. The challenge is not to accelerate exploring and drilling, which has been its plan, but to convince itself and regulators in the area that they can anticipate and handle safely the rugged environment involved.

Shell has long been recognized as the most careful, thoughtful and overall safest big oil company in the Arctic and elsewhere. The fact that it has experienced three mishaps in Alaska in the last eight months, impacting its plan to start drilling more oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, is a wake-up call not only to Shell, its management, and its investors, but also to all big oil and gas extraction companies.

Shell, with the help of the Coast Guard and others, managed to pull its floating oil rig, Kulluk, off the rock shoals and to a safe haven nearby without spilling any of the 150,000 gallons of diesel oil on board. They avoided a disaster, but the incident also highlights the contradictory impulses at play throughout the Arctic today.

The mostly frigid, ice-bound Arctic is warmer now than it has been in recorded human memory. Because of atmospheric change mostly from elsewhere, the Arctic Sea’s temperature is rising, and the glaciers and ice packs are melting. The warming of the permafrost that covers much of the Arctic is unleashing long-frozen methane greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus compounding its effect on climate change.

This big sea change — literally and figuratively — is helping to trigger an increased appetite for the area's rich natural resources on land and underwater. More than 30 percent of the world’s untapped mineral resources, including precious metals, are found in this northern band at the top of the world, with a total population of 4 million.

The warming of the Arctic has a cause and effect impact on ocean rise and climate change. It's making previously hidden resources ever more accessible; thus the pull for increased commercial activity. The mix is a witch’s brew. Private companies — oil and gas, mining, shipping, and tourism — want to invest more in the region at just the time when governments and international organizations are becoming more aware of the dangers of limited oversight.

A little known organization is ending up in the center, almost by accident: the Arctic Council. With eight member nations – Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the US – the Arctic Council was originated in the late 1980s by the Canadian Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation. It became an official inter-governmental agency in 1996, with the unique characteristics of having no secretariat (just added), calling on scientists as much as statesmen, encouraging the participation of indigenous peoples in the member countries, and utilizing consensus decision-making.

Operating under the radar of most of the rest of the world, the Arctic Council quietly started addressing some of the key scientific, political, economic, environmental, safety, and security issues plaguing the region. But Shell Oil's recent close call shows that this isn't enough.

Man's hubris about safely harnessing the area's extreme weather and unwelcoming environment can run be thumped and overwhelmed by the natural power of the Arctic elements. The Shell episode underlines the need for new thinking and some new approaches as resource exploration in the region expands. Here are some steps we can take:

1. We must create an ambitious international campaign of public awareness and public diplomacy to better educate people and governments around the world to the vital stakes involved in the Arctic.

2. The US Congress must sign the International Law of the Seas, first approved in 1983 and since signed by 164 countries. This would allow the US to protect its sovereign rights in the area and gain some "street cred" for its concern about environmental protection.

3. Via the Arctic Council observer status of the UNDP and UNEP, the United Nations should encourage the Arctic Council to undertake more rigorous regulations, to best balance public interests and private appetites in the region.

These first steps — and others — could help dilute the Arctic's potentially toxic and climate-impacted witch's brew.

Crocker Snow Jr. is director of the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School and is undertaking a joint public affairs, public policy and research international initiative on the impacts of the warming Arctic.