Changing Planet

Oil and Ice – The Risks of Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean

Oil spill response infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic Ocean. (Map credit: Center for American Progress)

Earlier this year, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Royal Dutch Shell would begin drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s North Slope. Since then, a litany of factors including difficulty handling its drilling rigs, failure to secure Coast Guard approval of a key spill response vessel, and the lingering presence of summer sea ice has prevented Shell’s efforts from bearing fruit. Last week, Shell received preliminary approval from the Department of the Interior to begin preparatory work, including the installation of blowout preventers at the drill sites.

Blowout preventers are critical pieces of drilling infrastructure, but as we saw in 2010 with the BP Deepwtaer Horizon disaster, they are not infallible. There can be no guarantees that Shell will not experience a spill during operations, and the fact is, the infrastructure on Alaska’s North Slope is in no way suited to support and sustain any major oil spill response activity.

In February, the Center for American Progress issued a report detailing both this lack of infrastructure and the dearth of scientific knowledge about how oil behaves when spilled in Arctic conditions. As a follow up, we traveled to Alaska in June and July to shoot and produce an original video.

In “Oil and Ice: the Risks of Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean,” we interview stakeholders and provide a first-hand look at life in a massive region with no rail service, only one major road, no deep water ports, nowhere to house or feed the army of responders a spill would require, and a seemingly endless pristine environment that could be spoiled forever by a single misstep like the one that caused the BP disaster.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.
  • maria luisa costosa margallo

    Mother nature is our only home. Please let us protect and work in harmony with it . It rendres mutual benefit. Thank God for nature-conscious people.

  • muzzle

    money-making seems to be the most important thing these days, and preventative measures should really be taken to avoid a major eco-disaster.

  • Nicole

    There is a whole department within the Department of Interior dedicated to researching and developing techniques to contain and clean up oil spills in any environment. Please check them out so you can get the full story:

    Almost 2 dozen projects dedicated to containment and clean up of oil spills in arctic, broken ice conditions have been successfully conducted. Clean up techniques exist, learn about them.

  • Charles Wyper

    I’m an 57 year old oilfield worker and my last 36 year have been dedecated to the oil field.
    I’m a driller at heart but my heart tells me to leave this virgin area at peace until, our every evolving industry can be 100% sure we can drill and ensure the world we will not have a spill. It has been there for millions of years and it will be there until we can drill for it ensuring we have no spills or until we think we really must recover the oil to keep the human race in existance.

  • Christopher

    This has been a useful source for my research on oil drilling in the arctic, and has got me thinking over the last few week. Personally I think that this development should postponed for a few decades until we reach a critical low point.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media