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Stunning, and disturbing, views of offshore rig’s proximity to Arctic refuge

Is our demand for petroleum so all-pervading that we’ll drill for it absolutely anywhere?

Shell Kulluk drill rig 12 miles off the Arctic Refuge.
Photo by Gary Braasch

In this age of limitless Internet imagery it’s good to know that a single photo can still stir up several thousand words – as Gary Braasch’s shot of a well-drilling ship at the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been doing since mid-October, when it was published at The Daily Climate

The point of his picture is proximity: Shell’s Kulluk rig, now drilling the upper portion of new wells in the Beaufort Sea, sits just about 12 miles from the refuge’s fragile coastline.

That was a kick in the gut for me and many others who have walked on that coast and come home with an everlasting love for it.

Twelve miles is no more protective a buffer than 12 yards to an open-water oil spill. Not even in a place like, say, the Gulf of Mexico, where warm temperatures and favorable wind patterns helped break up lots of crude from BP’s blowout, which fouled hundreds of miles of coastline from a spot nearly 250 miles offshore of  Houston, Texas.

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In the Alaskan Arctic, temperatures are usually cold enough to turn spilled crude into Chapstick, and the infrastructure that would carry cleanup crews to their job sites is nonexistent.

A decades-long fight

Saving the Arctic Refuge from the ravages of oil drilling has been a decades-long fight over the simplest of questions, really: Is our demand for petroleum so all-pervading that we’ll drill for it absolutely anywhere?

And as Gary Braasch’s images show so eloquently, the answer is essentially yes – even if we won’t sink a well precisely within the boundaries of this exquisite and important wilderness, this national treasure, then we’ll do it just offshore. And with comparably awful possibilities.

Indeed, the lands within the Arctic refuge have so far escaped production drilling only because of a complicated legislative and administrative history that requires an act of Congress to approve a well there.

But when both parties, both presidential candidates and most members of Congress have no problem with offshore wells in the Arctic, saving the refuge’s coastline from a spill at sea might require an act of God.

Few people get to visit the refuge, which is good for the place if not for the people. I got to go there at the end of June 1997 in circumstances one might call random.

Going to the top of the world

The Wilderness Society had organized a trip for its new president, Bill Meadows, and two staffers. One of those staffers was injured in a fall just a couple of weeks before the trio was to depart from Anchorage on a series of nonrefundable flights, commercial and chartered, across Alaska to Demarcation Bay – at the eastern edge of the refuge, where the borders of Alaska, Canada and the Beaufort Sea converge.

Rather than scrub the trip, the society decided to try inviting a journalist who might benefit from personal exposure to the refuge (and in turn, of course, write things that might benefit the health of the refuge).

And so one afternoon the phone rang on my desk in the Star Tribune’s editorial department. The caller introduced himself as Allen Smith, Alaska director for the Wilderness Society, and asked if I (a) wanted to go camping on the Arctic coast for a week or so, and (b) could be ready to leave in about 10 days’ time. 

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Susan Albright, my editor then and now, gave approval to a rather spendy itinerary and I started sorting through my gear, filling a backpack and a daypack for the most remarkable wilderness encounter of my life.

To this day, those days on the coast of the Beaufort Sea rank atop a short list of experiences that instantly and profoundly changed the way I see the world, and everything within it.

And on the admittedly slim chance that the refuge’s fate is not sealed – that some combination of Shell’s continuing missteps and newfound public concern might still turn back this offshore drilling – I dug out some pictures and passages from earlier writing to put into the public conversation. I’m no Gary Braasch, but I think it’s important that folks know what Arctic Refuge looks like up close, as well as from a dozen miles offshore.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

From the air the coastal plain looks like endless golden moss, soft and lumpy, traced with faint lines like the pattern on a turtle’s shell. Cycles of deep freeze and partial thaw pull the permafrost apart in sections, and the ground sinks slightly in between, forming shallow ditches. Any disruption of the fragile surface, like these fissures or truck tracks, is long-lasting and potentially permanent.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

Oil wells would mean wages and other income to the Inupiat, who generally favor drilling – except for offshore wells, which could disrupt the bowhead and beluga whales they hunt.

To the Gwich’in, onshore wells threaten to disrupt the herd’s use of the coastal plain, its principal calving ground. A caribou can lose as much as a quart of blood per week when the mosquitoes are at their worst, and so the animals mass on the cooler, breezy coast to give birth. Tens of thousands of caribou are born during a several-day span each spring; as soon as the calves can walk, migration resumes.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

In the next four days of walking the tundra, the smallest sight or sensation will be magnified by the scale of its surroundings. A green stone will gleam like jade in gin-clear river water. A passing cloud will make the difference between comfort and wanting another layer of clothing. The warm side of a grassy tussock will bloom with a half-dozen types of arctic wildflower, marking the boundary between microclimates.

 Shell is actually drilling at two offshore locations in the Arctic:

  • On the Sivulliq prospect in the Beaufort Sea, near the western edge of the Arctic refuge, with the Kulluk ship pictured above.
  • On the Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea, at a site about 70 miles offshore of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska’s northwest corner, with the drilling ship Noble Discoverer.

A company press release hailed the start of Discoverer’s drilling last Sept. 9 as “historic,”  because it was “the first time a drill bit has touched the sea floor in the U.S. Chukchi Sea in more than two decades.”

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Next day, another release reported that drilling had been suspended, and the ship moved off the site, because of threats from encroaching sea ice. And a week after that, the company reported that the containment dome of its Arctic Challenger barge – centerpiece of its system for coping with the oil spills it says won’t happen – had been so damaged during testing that the company was abandoning its timetable for completing wells at both sites this drilling season.

Instead, Shell is now drilling only the top 1,400 or or so feet of its first wells, stopping above the oil deposits for the remainder of 2012 and drilling deeper next year.

However, news reports in the Boston Globe and elsewhere indicate that Shell was restricted by regulators to this preliminary work until its containment barge won certification from the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard. That signoff didn’t come until just a few weeks ago, on Oct. 12.

Naturally, Shell spins all of these developments as examples of its commitment to doing things right, and ensuring that its activities in the Arctic won’t cause any problems. New technologies and techniques make oil production a nonthreatening activity in fragile environments, especially offshore This is what oil companies always say, and they aren’t always being disingenous.  

But for contrast, consider this interesting report from Britain’s Guardian of last Thursday. Based on documents obtained through a freedom of information process, the paper’s Leo Hickman found that oil companies operating in the North Sea had recorded 4,123 separate spills since 2000, but had been fined for only seven of the mishaps.

Some were quite small, involving spills of diesel fuel being transferred from one vessel to another. But others were quite large – like one in the neighborhood of 2,800 barrels of crude that escaped a broken underwater pipeline.

Back when onshore drilling in Arctic Refuge was up for debate, American environmental groups produced similar reports regarding operations at Prudhoe Bay and along the trans-Alaska pipline. But that’s all in the past, right?

We’ve got Shell’s word for it.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador