Arctic exploration is not new, just different – and safer | Don Brunell

Recently, activists paddled a flotilla of kayaks – made from petroleum products – into the Seattle harbor in an attempt to blockade a Shell Oil offshore drilling platform destined for the Arctic.

Then activists in Portland suspended themselves from the St. Johns Bridge – using all sorts of equipment and supplies made from petroleum products – in an effort to stop Shell’s ice breaker from leaving a local shipyard.

Their goal was to stop Arctic oil exploration.  But oil and gas exploration in the Arctic has been happening for nearly 50 years.  It is not new, it is just different – and safer.

Substantial oil deposits above the Arctic Circle were discovered nearly a century ago.  In 1923, President Warren G. Harding created Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4 on Alaska’s North Slope to ensure our Navy had an adequate oil supply as it converted from coal-fired boilers on ships.

When the Trans Alaska pipeline was proposed, environmental activists predicted unimaginable devastation.  That didn’t happen.  Since 1977, nearly 17 billion barrels of oil have flowed through the 800-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, where it is shipped to Washington State oil refineries.  The flow was interrupted only once, in 2001, when a drunk with a hunting rifle put a bullet in pipeline.

As the Prudhoe Bay fields developed, wells were safely drilled in the Arctic Ocean.  Endicott Island, a 45-acre artificial island in Beaufort Sea, started producing oil in 1987.  Today, there are oil platforms in Cook Inlet just south of Anchorage and in the heart of one of the world’s most prolific salmon and halibut fisheries.

Oil companies have been careful to leave the lightest possible footprint.  Equipment and supplies are trucked over ice roads that disappear with the spring thaw.  Even parked trucks have drop cloths placed underneath them to protect the fragile Arctic tundra.

Wildlife continues to co-exist.  In its most recent survey, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported in 2011 that the state’s largest caribou herd had quadrupled since the pipeline was

The grounding of the Exxon Valdez, which spilled 10 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound in 1989, is the textbook definition of what to avoid.  In the end, Exxon paid billions in fines, cleanup and restoration costs. Because of that disaster, double-hulled tankers are now required; tugs escort the tankers through narrow channels; and, cleanup equipment is pre-positioned to quickly respond.

So, is it safe to drill beneath Arctic ice?

There are Russian platforms using American technology in the Arctic Ocean. Despite the harsh winters and thick ice, liquefied natural gas and oil from beneath the ocean floor is being shipped year around from Sakhalin Island.

Shell, under the authorization of President Obama, is drilling off Alaska. Despite the marked drop in oil prices, Shell is investing billions to explore for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, which says a lot about its importance to America’s future energy supply.

A 2008 U.S. Geological Survey estimated that areas north of the Arctic Circle have 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil, which represents 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered crude.  Much of it is offshore.

American oil companies are using new technology, equipment, training and extensive environmental safeguards, and their operations are subject to intensive government oversight.

Is it foolproof?  No.  But every form of energy production has an environmental impact.

Big solar arrays and massive farms of wind turbines cover thousands of acres of wildlife habitat and have been deadly to birds caught in their paths.

We need a mix of energy supplies to meet our needs and fuel our economic growth.

The key is to act as wisely and carefully as possible.