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.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.