In the freezing dark of a Far North New Year’s Eve in 2012, 70 mph winds and heaving seas forced two boats contracted by Royal Dutch Shell to cut a massive oil rig loose. The storm had caught the boats in the Gulf of Alaska while towing the rig from an exploratory oil well off Alaska’s north coast, to a Seattle shipyard.
Luckily, the rig didn’t spill any of the 39,000 gallons of diesel it carried when it ran aground 45 minutes later. But the accident was just one of many mishaps that plagued Shell’s nascent Arctic efforts last year, leading it to suspend them in 2013. Ships drifted out of control or caught fire; a spill containment barge was damaged; air pollution violations landed the company $1.1 million in fines. Such incidents hardly stoke confidence that oil companies can drill safely beneath Arctic seas.
The Arctic hosts one of the richest, least disturbed marine ecosystems in the world, upon which walruses, polar bears, whales and Native communities depend for subsistence. That’s why environmental groups like the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council are pushing to stop the federal government’s 2016 Chukchi Sea lease sale, and lobbying for strict regulation as the feds draft a new proposal for Arctic offshore drilling rules. Canada is also evaluating proposals to drill the Beaufort Sea. Meanwhile, Greenpeace activists drew global attention to Russia’s Arctic oil ambitions after climbing onto a state-owned offshore drilling platform.
Until relatively recently, the Arctic’s harsh remoteness repelled most development. But as the region warms twice as fast as the rest of the globe, sea ice declines are easing access in an ironic feedback loop spurred by our profligate consumption of the very fuels Shell and others are so eager to extract. In November, Shell filed plans to resume work on its Chukchi Sea leases in 2014.
It seems inevitable that industrial ambitions will collide with the area’s inherent volatility and ecological fragility. As the Pew Charitable Trusts writes in its recommendations for Arctic drilling standards, there is as yet no proven technology for cleaning up oil spills mixed with or trapped beneath ice. If something goes wrong with a well or pipeline in deep winter, how long would it take to do anything about it?
This, after all, is a place sealed in ice most of the year. It is completely dark in winter. “Even during the summer when the ice pack has mostly receded,” Pew writes, there are still “high seas, wind, freezing temperatures, dense fog, and floating ice hazards. … Major highways, airports, and ports … do not exist. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard air base is in Kodiak, AK, more than 950 air miles away. The nearest major port is in Dutch Harbor, AK, over 1,000 miles away. Sailing from Dutch Harbor to Barrow, AK (the point between the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic Ocean), would be similar to transiting the entire West Coast of the United States.”
Pressure to develop onshore Arctic resources is also mounting. Canadian officials recently opened the Northwest Territories to hydraulic fracturing, and U.S. lawmakers are battling over whether to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
As someone born and raised in a state that has only fragmented wild places left, it’s difficult for me to even fathom the wildness that remains in the globe’s Northern reaches. Even after flying to Alaska for the first time this summer, I have only a tenuous grasp of its scale. Unbroken forests and fjords seemed to sprawl forever below the plane. A pair of wolverines romped 30 feet from where I stood above a tumbling glacier. Here are places that boast things most of us can only imagine — salmon runs thick enough to walk across, rivers of migrating caribou.
Think of all the Lower 48 once contained: The sandstone cathedral of Glen Canyon. A Colorado River that jumped its banks to forge new beds for itself across the Southwest. Grizzlies in California’s Sierra Nevada Range. An ocean of bison on an ocean of prairie. An undammed Missouri River as wide as a sea. All of it reduced to legend and memory, grainy photographs and explorers’ accounts.
Is this where development of the Far North leads us? To a time when even its vast wildness, which now belongs to no one and everyone — which belongs first and ultimately to itself — persists mostly in people’s words? Let’s hope not. It’s better to live in a world that has a voice left to tell its own tales, even if that voice is the banshee shriek of a 70 mph gale, slapping across the ocean, telling you that you don’t belong.
Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. She is the magazine’s associate editor.