President Obama heads off to Alaska this week, and climate change is at the top of his agenda. His comments regarding offshore Arctic oil drilling in particular provide important food for thought for those of us along the Beartooth Front.
The extent of global warming in Alaska
If there is a US front in the battle against global warming, it is Alaska. The changes happening in that state are enormous, with dramatic implications for that area:
- Since Alaska became a state in 1959, temperatures across the state have increased by an average of 3.4°F. Winter warming has been even greater, rising by an average of 6.3°F.The rate of warming in Alaska was twice the national average over that same period of time. Average annual temperatures in Alaska are projected to increase an additional 3.5 to 7°F by the middle of this century.
- With this clear evidence that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that most of the permafrost in the state will disappear this century. Permafrost is the frozen ground located one to two feet below the surface in cold regions (and 80% of Alaska), and this loss will have substantial impacts on transportation, forests, ecosystems, and the economy. The situation has gotten so bad that some native communities, including the little town of Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea, may now have to be relocated because of the dangerous loss of land to the sea.
- Alaska had its worst wildfire season in recorded history in 2015, and has experienced its three worst wildfire seasons in the last eleven years. This is remarkable not only because Alaska has 17% of the forests in the United States and over 5 million acres burned in 2015, but because the extent of these fires causes additional permafrost melting.
Oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean
This is the context for the controversial issue of drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic Ocean. On August 17, the Interior Department issued a permit to Shell to drill an exploratory well into oil-bearing zones in the Arctic Ocean, providing the company a long-sought victory. The permit infuriated environmentalists, escalating a long battle with President Obama over his administration’s climate and energy agenda.
If Shell discovers oil or natural gas, it must apply for additional permits to produce the oil, a process that could take a decade or more. Shell has been pursuing drilling in the Arctic Ocean since 2007, though hasn’t yet discovered any oil or natural gas.
The potential benefits of drilling are substantial. The Arctic Ocean, including both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, is estimated to contain 34 billion barrels of reserves, at least 20% of the world’s undiscovered crude oil and natural gas. These reserves are relatively close to the surface. More than 50% of the Chukti Sea is less than 200 foot deep. Further, Arctic reserves could replenish a diminishing supply from the shale fields of North Dakota, Texas, and other US fields, which will begin declining over the next decade.
But the dangers are great. The Chukchi Sea is one of the most dangerous places to drill for oil in the world. A spill there could be even more disastrous than the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
If a spill were to occur, it would be very difficult to reach. The closest U.S. Coast Guard base is 1,000 miles away from where Shell is exploring. There are no roads. The nearest deepwater port is hundreds of miles away. In winter, a spill would be even more disastrous. Winter storms, frigid waters and 50-foot-high waves are common in the area. Oil trapped beneath the ice might migrate long distances. There would be virtually no way to clean up or contain the spill.
Department of Interior regulations of Arctic Ocean drilling
The regulations established by the Department of the Interior before the exploratory permit was granted are rigorous:
- All phases of Shell’s offshore Arctic program – preparations, drilling, maritime and emergency response operations – must be integrated and subject to strong operator management and government oversight, as detailed in Shell’s Integrated Operations Plan;
- A shortened drilling season is established in the regulations to allow time for open-water emergency response and relief rig operations late in the drilling season before projected ice encroachment;
- The capping stack must be pre-staged and available for use within 24 hours;
- A tested subsea containment system must be deployable within eight days;
- Shell must have the capability to drill a same season relief well;
- The must be a robust suite of measures to avoid and minimize adverse impacts to marine mammals and their habitat, impacts to Native subsistence activities, and other environmental impacts; and
- Drilling units and their supporting vessels must depart the Chukchi Sea at the conclusion of each exploration drilling season.
Interior will also overhaul federal oversight by restructuring to provide independent regulatory agencies that have clear missions and are better-resourced to carry out their work, while keeping pace with a rapidly evolving industry.
President Obama explains his rationale for supporting Arctic drilling
In his weekly address over the weekend, President Obama spoke directly to the difficulty of this choice. He acknowledge the dramatic pace of climate change in Alaska:
This is all real. This is happening to our fellow Americans right now. In fact, Alaska’s governor recently told me that four villages are in “imminent danger” and have to be relocated. Already, rising sea levels are beginning to swallow one island community.Think about that. If another country threatened to wipe out an American town, we’d do everything in our power to protect ourselves. Climate change poses the same threat, right now.
He discussed the importance of moving to clean energy, and described his administration’s efforts in that area. But he emphasized that we’re not there yet, and we need to continue to rely on fossil fuels, which is why, he maintains, we need to drill in the Arctic Ocean.
Now even as we accelerate this transition, our economy still has to rely on oil and gas. As long as that’s the case, I believe we should rely more on domestic production than on foreign imports, and we should demand the highest safety standards in the industry – our own. Still, I know there are Americans who are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters. Some are also concerned with my administration’s decision to approve Shell’s application to drill a well off the Alaskan coast, using leases they purchased before I took office. I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling. I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well.
(We have) made it clear that Shell has to meet our high standards in how they conduct their operations – and it’s a testament to how rigorous we’ve applied those standards that Shell has delayed and limited its exploration off Alaska while trying to meet them.”
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, you can recognize the difficulty of the choice even if you don’t agree with the decision.
Why this is relevant to the Beartooth Front
Along the Beartooth Front, we do not have the choice to make about whether or not to drill. Although some would prefer on ban on drilling, this is simply not possible, given the importance of traditional sources of energy to the Montana economy and the nature of Montana’s institutions regulating oil and gas.
But this area, like the Chukchi Sea, is a critical environment. A major accident could permanently damage critical rivers, aquifers, or other sources of water. A spill could damage the ecosystem for important species. The area’s economy, which depends on agriculture and ranching, could be threatened.
Just as it would be unthinkable to allow drilling in the Chukchi without substantial regulation, it is unimaginable to consider allowing drilling along the Beartooth Front without safeguards for water, soil, air, and the protection of the livelihoods of our residents.
Appropriate regulation would include:
- The establishment of setbacks from wells to occupied dwellings or sources of water;
- Regular testing of water sources near wells for contamination
- Regular testing of soil near wells;
- Regular testing of air near wells for fugitive gases;
- Requirements for well design that would minimize the possibility of spills or seepage of toxins into soil;
- Noise abatement to reduce noise pollution
These requirements are not built into any Montana regulation. Local regulation through citizen initiated zoning is the only way to get this done.
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