Recently, a top scientist has said that if Russia's Arctic drilling plans go ahead, an oil spill is certain. We all fear, and certainly expect, that man's track record when it comes to drilling for oil is about as lousy as it gets and that the Arctic’s fragile and pristine environment is far, far more delicate than any of us realize. An oil spill there would drastically affect every form of Arctic life. It's not a case of "if," but rather, a case of "when."
Even prior to drilling, the simple staging of the equipment will border on disastrous because introducing shipping from foreign ports with their discharge of ballast waters "could have very big consequences and affect the whole food chain." It has been estimated that the Arctic holds one-quarter of the world’s remaining oil deposits, almost twice as much as Saudi Arabia’s reserves. Obviously the stakes and profits are huge. Man's track record for searching for oil has shown us time and again that profit always trumps protection.
But before drilling can begin, big ships must be brought in, many far too big for some of the shallow Arctic shoals. Base stations will have to be built and manned. All we have to do is look to the other end of the globe to McMurdo Station in the Antarctic to see what these base stations will do to the area.
As chilling and dangerous as all of this seems, I feel it's simply scratching the surface of an equally as dangerous scenario – for far more lays hidden under what has to be one of our very last unspoiled and fragile environments.
Where drilling will exist, new and more land based prospecting could start, for the Arctic is rich in lucrative natural resources, which lay just under the surface. If for any reason the hunt and removal of the oil and gas were taken off the table, the area also boasts a phenomenal amount of materials such as lead, magnesium, zinc, nickel, and diamonds. The largest fear I have about potential excavating is the “out of sight, out of mind” concept; if prospecting happens, what will happen to the area and especially the permafrost? To back up this fear are events not widely known; that between 1958 and 1992, Russia deposited 18 nuclear reactors in and around the Arctic Ocean, several of them still loaded with nuclear fuel. Few, if any, have been located and retrieved or cleaned up.
Without protective measures in place, excavating through the area’s fragile permafrost layers could be a disaster waiting to happen. Simply put, if the permafrost were to melt, one of the effects would be the release of vast amounts methane and carbon dioxide, which are powerful heat-trapping gases that could enter the atmosphere. The absence of methane would also drastically alter the presence of plant species in the area.
Then there's Mother Nature herself. When dealing with the ice, shipping will find it to be completely unpredictable and each year it would present its own grave challenges. Mother Nature has won before and will continue to do so.
In 1969, to test the feasibility of transiting The Northwest Passage in an oil tanker, the SS Manhatten set sail through the Passage with a token barrel of oil. At one point, the tanker became hopelessly stuck, requiring aid from the Canadian icebreakers CCGS John A. Macdonald and the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent. During the rescue, the Macdonald broke her starboard propeller in heavy ice, an inglorious start for future shipping concerns. Granted, tanker design has changed for the better since 1969 but the episode illustrates the hidden power of wind, ice and shallow waters.
But surely we have rulings and international laws to protect the Artic? Well, as for treaties and protection, there are five Arctic powers vying for dominance: Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States. Unlike Antarctica, there is very little paperwork in place delineating which nation has what claim to which area. Far too complex to try to break down in this short article, suffice it to say it’s a bit like the Old West, all trying to stake a claim via interpreting antiquated laws and rulings to their benefit.
With Russia's ensuing drilling we are standing just outside a cross roads, but perhaps we are not too late to take a few steps back. While I don’t advocate commandeering ships of other nations I do fear that if we don't intervene in this avaristic hunt for elusive natural resources and fossil fuels, we can set into action an event the likes of which we have never witnessed before.
Sprague Theobald is author of the new book The Other Side of The Ice and director of the accompanying documentary, which has won several awards. He successfully traveled the deadly Northwest Passage in 2009.
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