Arctic oil doomsday scenario

Photo Hannes Grobe, Wikimedia Commons

News today that the U.S. plans to limit offshore drilling in the Arctic has some Alaskan government officials upset. As quoted in an Associated Press story carried by the CBC, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski suggests such limits on Arctic extractive industries are a “one, two, three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy.”

Plans by the Obama administration to limit development of Alaskan oil resources hinge on the designation of some regions of northern Alaska as wilderness refuge zones. As reported in a Reuters story picked up by CBC earlier this week, Sen. Murkowski described such moves as a politically motivated attack on Alaska and vowed to “fight back with every resource at our disposal.” At the same time, the Republican dominated U.S. Congress recently tabled a bill to green-light the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

One further news story to point out before continuing, a Dec. 2014 story by the CBC about Chevron Canada suspending its Arctic drilling plans indefinitely, due to instability in markets. These three news stories are interesting not only because of the political and corporate drama they represent, but also because of the notable absence of two important words in all three of them: climate change.

As it is reported by AP and Reuters, attempts by the Obama administration to limit Arctic oil is about protection of wilderness (certainly a laudable goal) and Chevron’s decision to halt Arctic operations is because of economic considerations. Nowhere in these three stories is there an indication that perhaps the best reason to refrain from extracting Arctic oil is to do with concerns about climate change, when really that should be the primary reason. Certainly, concerns about oil spills and destruction of habitat are warranted (and in my view concerns about the economic stability of oil companies are not), but all other concerns are subsumed by the overarching issue of climate change, which if it was taken seriously would mean Arctic oil developments would never happen in the first place.

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There is a lot of oil in the Arctic. The biggest potential is in the Kara Sea, on Russia’s continental shelf, but Canada and the U.S. also have significant potential reserves. Along these lines, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, on Canada’s east coast, is keen to make the province a launchpad for Arctic oil development, drawing on local experience in offshore, cold water oil extraction.  Newfoundland and Labrador will host the 2016 Arctic Technology Conference and the government has also been promoting its Arctic Opportunities Initiative across the province.

The problem with all this talk about Arctic oil development is that it flies in the face of the best available science on climate change. Last year the UN’s IPCC released their report on climate change, noting that for the goal of only 2 degree Celsius average warming to happen that significant portions of known oil reserves would need to stay in the ground, which obviously means finding new sources of oil, such as in the Arctic, makes no sense.

These findings were bolstered by a newly released report in the journal Nature, showing exactly which fossil fuel sources need to be left in the ground (Guardian article on this report here). Along with noting that the vast majority of Alberta’s tar sands need to be left alone, the study shows that all Arctic oil needs to be left in the ground. This is to say there is no point whatsoever exploring for Arctic oil, that there is no point whatsoever for Newfoundland and Labrador to try to become a leader in Arctic oil, and that any government or company pushing for Arctic oil development is recklessly ignoring the best available science.

That’s why Arctic oil is a doomsday scenario. If Arctic oil proceeds, it will be time to take seriously the most pessimistic projections for the future that are elaborated in the continuous stream of reports on climate change. Arctic oil will be a sign that things have gone beyond the point of no return, and that governments and companies either do not care or are resigned to a grim fate for us all.

Here in the sleepy little corner of the world called Newfoundland and Labrador, it may seem we are separate from many of these global issues. But just as our government recognizes the potential for the province to be a hub for Arctic oil activities, those concerned about climate change must also come to see the province as a potential hub and focal point for resistance to Arctic oil.

Guardian graphic
Image from Guardian article. Click for source.

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