Drilling in the Beaufort

In recent years the environmental lobby has fought particularly hard to stop offshore drilling on Alaska's North Slope and by the end of 2008 had managed to win its battle, although some international oil companies have promised to keep fighting the wider war and continue pressing their case.

Their chief antagonist in this particular struggle was Royal Dutch Shell, whose geologists feel sure that the offshore waters of the North Slope offer a huge, untapped source of oil. 'The [outer continental shelf] is a potential bonanza for oil and gas, and every day we are not drilling are days we're not going to be producing, and that will materially impact Alaska and the nation', as the company's General Manager in Alaska, Pete Slaiby, later claimed.3 Another Shell director concurred, arguing that 'we see the Beaufort Sea as a significant basin. It offers a wide diversity of geology and is largely untested'. She added that, in Shell's view, 'North America continues to hold promising opportunities' and that 'Alaska, because of its large resource potential, is one such area'.4

Shell's chance came in 2005, when a United States government agency, the Minerals Management Service, adopted an aggressive leasing strategy that was designed to offset the declining output from Prudhoe Bay. It decided to sell the rights to search for oil in two areas that were thought to be particularly promising - the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas - and Shell seized the opportunity, buying a number of leases in both areas for $2.1 billion and $84 million respectively and then getting ready to drill three wells at a remote spot, 16 miles offshore, called Sivulliq.

Environmental groups, such as the Alaska Wilderness League, were infuriated by the decision. Most of all, they argued, any commercial activity in these seas - even the arrival of icebreakers, the undertaking of seismic surveys and the movement of thousands of tons of piping as well as heavy drilling - posed a real threat to bowhead whales, which migrate through the Beaufort Sea twice a year. This was bad enough, they claimed, but it was even more important because the local Inupiat community hunt the whales and rely on them as a key source of food. If the whales are driven from the sea, went the argument, then local ways of life would also disappear along with them.

There are a number of other reasons why environmentalists particularly fear offshore drilling. Activists point out that it is not just the surveying and excavation itself that causes a problem, but also the enormous logistical effort that is required to sustain these operations. Hundreds of ships are often required to support underwater drilling, and their constant movement through a particular area can have an enormous effect on both local wildlife and indigenous peoples. Many also argue that investing so much money to search for oil and then extract it is in any case badly misguided. 'It just feeds a vicious cycle', argues Athan Manuel, a director at the American pressure group the Sierra Club, pointing to the way in which oil development in the Arctic is both a cause and effect of climate change. Much more important, he argues, is to emphasize energy conservation while making much greater use of cleaner technologies. 'More drilling is not the solution', he says. 'We think this is a terrible idea.'5

In August 2007, the United States Court of Appeals imposed a temporary injunction on Shell's offshore drilling, a delay that would inevitably cost the company huge sums, until it reached its final verdict. Fifteen months later it made its long-awaited pronouncement and ruled in favour of the environmentalists. The Minerals Management Service, it argued, had violated American law (the 1970

National Environmental Policy Act) by failing to take a 'hard look' at the impact that offshore drilling would have on both the bowhead whale and the region's indigenous community. 'There remain substantial questions as to whether Shell's plan may cause significant harm to the people and wildlife of the Beaufort Sea region', as the judges argued in the courtroom in San Francisco.

Green campaigners were of course jubilant. 'This is really a signal that Shell's plan was simply too much, too fast and too shoddy', as Peter Clausen, director of the National Resources Defense Council, told one newspaper. He also noted that the decision virtually coincided with the election of a new American president who has always proclaimed his opposition to offshore drilling: 'By this decision, the court has opened the door to a new administration to take a whole new approach, and hopefully a more precautionary approach, to America's Arctic and make sure we don't lose endangered species.'6

The Beaufort Sea lies adjacent to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is the setting for another, quite distinct, environmental controversy. One of the most contentious issues of American domestic politics in recent years has been the proposal to open this 20 million acre region to drilling. The USGS estimates that the Refuge contains 10.36 billion barrels of oil, and although by the standards of the industry these reserves are not enormous, the fate of the area has nonetheless acquired tremendous symbolic value for both the oil lobby and environmentalists alike. Lobby groups emphasize that this coastal plain is special not just because of its superb natural beauty, but also because it has a vast and varied wildlife population that includes caribou, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, and is the last remaining habitat of the highly traditional Gwich'in Inuits, who call the area 'the sacred place where life begins'. But although in June 2008 President Bush had urged Congress to reverse the ban on offshore drilling in the Refuge, Barack Obama was elected to the White House in November with a much less sympathetic approach to the issue.

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