When it comes to Shell drilling for oil in the Arctic, the writing’s on the wall. A spill is inevitable.
If this were a court case, with The People on one bench and Shell on the other, the evidence would be laid out as follows.
First, we have the opening arguments. Shell has received its permits to drill in Alaskan Arctic waters despite its past regulatory infractions, worldwide public opposition, and the very real likelihood of destroying marine ecosystems along the Arctic and northwestern coasts. Even the U.S. government estimates a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill. Defending the coast means saying no to Arctic oil, too.
Last month, a grain tanker spilled 2,800 litres of oil into Vancouver’s English Bay. If the Coast Guard couldn’t respond effectively to such a small spill in a calm harbour, how could they possibly handle one in the Arctic, where hurricane-force storms and 20-foot swells aren’t uncommon and where the nearest base is 1,600 kilometres from Shell’s Chukchi Sea drilling site?
Of course, as in any case, we need to look at the evidence. Consider Exhibit A: the fact that Shell doesn’t have the technology to deal with a spill on sea ice. To be fair, it isn’t all Shell’s fault. The technology for this simply doesn’t exist. Even outside of Arctic waters, responders are usually only ever able to contain 10 to 15 percent of oil spilled at sea. Since there are no deep-water ports, airports, or appropriate infrastructure in Alaska, responders likely couldn’t even contain that much. The U.S. Coast Guard estimated that BP only recovered five percent of the oil spilled during the months-long Deepwater Horizon blowout. And that spill happened surrounded by infrastructure, with more than 5,000 vessels involved in the effort. It’s a totally different game in the Arctic, with harsh weather, unpredictable ice floes, and 24-hour darkness part of the year. A spill at the end of the summer when the ice starts to come in could gush all winter long (October until June) before responders were physically able to get back into position to attempt to cap it.
Now, let’s turn our attention to Exhibit B: the ruins of Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig. The last time Shell tried to drill in the Arctic in 2012, it cut corners to avoid paying taxes in Alaska, ultimately causing the Kulluk to run aground. Its operators were charged with breaking maritime law to the tune of eight felonies and $12 million in fines.
With the price of oil so low, and Shell having sunken $6 billion into this project already, the incentive to cut even more safety corners to save costs remains high. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, then let’s just say that Shell is likely to be a repeat offender.
Next up is Exhibit C: extreme oil will definitely increase tanker traffic, putting coastal ecosystems at risk. Already, five crude oil tankers a week traverse our western coast. That’s a lot. Transporting oil from Alaska to southern U.S. states will add even more traffic. Factor in the 120,000 tonnes of bitumen to be loaded onto tankers via Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline and the added tankers from Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, and it’s an accident waiting to happen.
Shell has also shown a flagrant disregard for the impact of tankers on community stakeholders. The company has denied coastal First Nations and Inuit communities equal voice. At this moment, 25 vessels with Shell’s drilling equipment are en route to Alaska. They will soon pass through unceded traditional waters of First Peoples who have not been given their right to free, prior, and informed consent—peoples whose livelihoods, lands, and waters they plan to put at risk.
By way of a closing argument, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are pushing temperatures up to unsustainable levels. As the Arctic warms at twice the rate of the rest of the world, the mechanics by which it has regulated our planet’s climate systems since time immemorial are slowing down. It’s why we’re seeing rising sea levels and extreme droughts, floods, and storms.
It’s time to face facts. Drilling for Arctic oil just isn’t in our carbon budget. About 82 percent of global oil reserves need to stay in the ground to keep Earth’s temperature in check, including extreme oil like in the Arctic and the tar sands.
Even those who put their faith in the invisible hand of the market shouldn’t be persuaded that the cash payout outweighs the environmental damage. Low oil prices mean small profits. Meanwhile, renewable energy production will grow faster than any other power source through 2040. The market isn’t just speaking—it’s screaming. Exxon and Rosneft have already scrapped plans to drill in Russia. Chevron has shelved plans to drill in Canada’s Beaufort Sea.
But, Shell doesn’t seem to have received the message that drilling in the Arctic isn’t good for people, planet, or profits. That’s why Greenpeace and millions of activists around the world aren’t going to let Shell slink up our coast unnoticed. We’re going to make sure that millions of people around the world are watching.
Seven million people have signed up to defend the Arctic. Last month, six Greenpeace activists boarded one of Shell’s rigs in protest of their drilling plans. This week, dozens of “kayaktivists” confronted the company’s fleet in Seattle. And now, six indigenous allies from First Nations are sailing with Greenpeace to connect with other Coastal First Nations to begin connecting the movement to stop the expansion of tar sands with the movement to save the Arctic. And it is all connected..
Public opinion and activism have already helped to cancel three major pipelines and one pipeline terminal for Energy East. Together, matching courage for courage in a wave of solidarity from coast to coast to coast, we’re a force much stronger than Big Oil.
The people have spoken. In the case of The People vs. Oil, the defense of the coast rests.