May 2, 2014 – On so many levels this is an interesting story. First we have a Russian tanker, Mikhail Ulyanov, delivering the first oil from a production well in the Arctic Ocean. Then we have the Greenpeace protest ship, Rainbow Warrior, (seen below in the photo taken below by Ruben Neugebauer of Greenpeace) intercepting the tanker before it docks in the port of Rotterdam. Then we have Dutch police arresting some 44 protesters and seizing the Greenpeace ship, then releasing almost all of them without charges after a few hours. Add to that the latest Russian threats to Eastern Ukraine and the recent seizure of Crimea with Europe applying sanctions on Russian businesses and you have the makings of quite a pot boiler.
But it is the issue behind Greenpeace’s action that should be of great concern to all of us on the planet. Russia has started shipping oil from Arctic Ocean oil wells. The Russians may soon be joined by American, European and Canadian companies with similar plans to exploit oil and natural gas deposits under that same ocean and ship them south by tankers to refiners.
What’s wrong with this picture? The potential for an accident in the Arctic Ocean is one that makes environmentalists shake in their boots. Today there is no adequate technology or infrastructure in place to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic. And once a spill occurs because of this any response would come from remote ports to the south taking weeks. Add to this the kind of conditions found in the Arctic Ocean with broken sea ice, oil trapped under sea ice, the oil impacted by the cold water so that it doesn’t evaporate to the same extent it would in more southerly spills, and the potential for the oil to linger for decades in icy, subzero conditions, and you have an environmental disaster.
For the people and wildlife of the Arctic it may mean a sentence of death. Marine mammals and birds will suffer from oil contamination. Arctic land animals that rely on food from the sea will face starvation, and when they do find a meal it may be contaminated by the toxins in the oil. The human communities of the Arctic will lose the sea resource on which they are so dependent.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989 is the closest approximation we have today to an Arctic Ocean oil spill. That ship killed 250,000 sea birds, 22 killer whales, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals and thousands of fish. And the killing continues 25 years after the spill with bottom-forages like the sea otters ingesting oil that remains in the seabed.
So Greenpeace, whether you like the tactics or not, has a point. If fossil fuel companies are hell bent on finding and pumping oil out of the Arctic Ocean basin then doesn’t it make sense that before they do this they have the infrastructure in place to deal with the potential for an oil spill?
Today we know that Russia pays little attention to oil spills. Back in October of last year I wrote a post entitled, “Russia and Arctic Oil Exploration – An Accident Waiting to Happen.” In it I described how Gazprom, the operator of the Mikhail Ulyanov, lost an oil rig in the Arctic Ocean in 2011, and in 2012 reported over 2,600 land-based oil spills in its extensive network of refineries, wells and pipelines. Its closest response vessels to its Arctic rigs are a three-day sail away.
Imagine the damage done by the 2010 blowout that occurred with BP Deepwater Horizon that gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days before being capped. The oil is still washing up on shore four years later. Now imagine something similar happening in the Arctic Ocean with no immediate response and the oil becoming trapped under sea ice and coagulating into thick globs. Imagine skimmers trying to work to get the oil off the ice-filled surface of the Ocean. And imagine the accumulation of the oil on the seabed where we humans can do little to remediate what collects there. Some 30,000 people responded to BP Deepwater Horizon. How many would be available to deal with a remote Arctic Ocean oil spill even of lesser magnitude?
North American and European fossil fuel companies are in no better shape than the Russians in dealing with the potential of an Arctic Ocean oil spill. Back in January of this year Royal Dutch Shell announced it was cutting exploration and development of its drilling plan in the Arctic Ocean. It did this because environmental groups and Arctic indigenous people filed a lawsuit to prevent drilling based on the argument that the company lacked the capacity to deal with a potential oil spill. Shell gracefully retreated rather than contest the argument and has put off its drilling for at least one more year.
But that’s not stopping Gazprom and the Russians. So maybe Greenpeace is making all the rest of us sit up and take notice.