Shell Oil is only part of the great race for this prize. Russia is militarizing its part of the Arctic for this reason. Canada intends to secure its claims, too, also to benefit from sea lanes that will become possible, thanks to an Arctic Ocean freed from ice by global warming.
When I covered the Oil Patch in southeast Texas, most of the huge “elephant fields” such as Spindletop had played out and the drilling action had shifted to the Gulf of Mexico.
You could see some big rigs from shore; most were farther out. A friend worked on one as an emergency medical technician. He would be ferried out on a chopper. Helicopters evacuated the crews when hurricanes approached.
Everything is big there, from the machinery to extract oil from below the seabed to the plants on Refinery Row and the fortunes won and lost. Big and potentially deadly.
Those risks were on spectacular display in 2010 when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, killing 11 and leaving a 4.9 million barrel oil spill in the Gulf.
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Still, workers display a wildcatter sang froid. One joke was that you could tell an authentic bowl of gumbo by the slight whiff of crude and a couple of bolts in the mix that had fallen off a drill ship.
Attitudes are different in Seattle, where Shell’s Polar Pioneer arrived to berth at Terminal 5 on its way to drill in waters off Alaska. The Obama administration earlier this month conditionally approved Arctic drilling this summer.
The Polar Pioneer is a massive beast, owned by the global drilling contractor Transocean, leased by Shell and is capable of sitting in more than 1,600 feet of ocean, from which it can drill as deep as 25,000 feet, according to the industry blog Rigzone. Shell’s proposed exploration is in much shallower waters.
One of several drilling vessels that will pass through in the next few months, it can accommodate a crew of 110 and sail at 6 knots, secured to a tug.
Karma alert: The Polar Pioneer was built in 1985 by Hitachi Zosen, the same Japanese industrial conglomerate that built the Bertha tunnel boring machine. What could possibly go wrong?
To protesters who met it in kayaks (most made with petrochemical products), the answer is plenty. The Polar Pioneer represents not only a threat to the Arctic ecosystem, but also the grave danger of climate change. If we don’t keep most of the carbon in the ground, if we extract it and burn it in the atmosphere, future generations will pay an enormous price.
Interestingly, these were also the questions that reportedly dominated the annual meeting of Royal Dutch Shell last week.
Shell was the first major oil company to admit a connection between carbon-dioxide emissions and climate change. It trumpets its ability to balance “economic, environmental and social challenges” while “securing energy supplies for the future.”
Investors aren’t so sure. They are coming to realize the costs of climate change and the risks to oil companies, even when they receive huge government subsidies.
More immediately, they worry about how potential rules limiting emissions that might come out of the Paris climate summit later this year would affect their oil-company investments.
And many question investing in such expensive projects as Arctic drilling. This is a warning also sounded by environmental groups. Oceana singled out Shell in a report on its northern ambitions, writing “the U.S. Arctic Ocean presents an almost perfect storm of risks.”
World oil demand will keep growing. BP recently estimated the world has enough crude for 53.3 years at current extraction rates. That’s barely time to make a difficult transition to cleaner fuels and alternative modes of transportation and living.
It is also plenty of time to create a planetary disaster if we deny climate change, sleepwalk and do nothing.
The Arctic is one of the battlegrounds for how this plays out. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated it holds nearly a quarter of the world’s undiscovered petroleum.
Shell is only part of the great race for this prize. Russia is militarizing its part of the Arctic for this reason. Canada intends to secure its claims, too, also to benefit from sea lanes that will become possible, thanks to an Arctic Ocean freed from ice by global warming.
Shell is hardly a newcomer. It drilled Alaska’s first offshore well in Cook Inlet in 1963.
But true Arctic drilling, in places such as the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, is notoriously risky. Even in the summer, extreme weather, unpredictable seas and ice floes make the work punishing. The distances to safe harbors are enormous.
The effort by Shell and its subcontractors in summer 2012 proved disappointing, despite years of preparation, waiting for permits and $6 billion invested. Then even worse tidings arrived.
The giant rig Kulluk, which earlier had been refurbished by Vigor Marine in Seattle, traveled a thousand miles back to Dutch Harbor. But the decision was made to tow it south, possibly to Seattle, in part to avoid Alaska taxes. It was December.
During a voyage that faced heaving seas and gale-force winds, the rig broke from its tug and ran aground on an island.
In addition to potential environmental damage, the grounding required a perilous rescue of the Kulluk’s skeleton crew by the Coast Guard. One subcontractor faced felony charges. The Coast Guard faulted Shell for “inadequate assessment and management of risks.”
And all this was when oil prices were around $110 a barrel. Last week, Brent crude was about $65. Apparently, Shell’s management still sees huge potential.