Fight at the Roof of Earth, Colltalers
There was a collective sigh in Portland, Oregon, a week ago today, when the MSV Fennica crossed St. John’s Bridge. Despite months of skirmishes, environmental activists could not prevent the Royal Dutch Shell’s icebreaker from heading to the Arctic.
Time will tell but the ship’s journey may be the opening salvo of a potentially disastrous era of oil drilling in the North Pole, an effort to which Shell has already spent over $6 billion and several years to make it into reality. Other multinational oil giants may soon follow.
The final straw came last month, when the Obama administration decided to allow the digging in the Chukchi Sea as long as a spill-response equipment is deployed in the area. The Fennica, which was being repaired in Portland, is part of this untested strategy.
To be sure, Shell still has not presented a comprehensive plan, if that’s even possible, for the case of a spill. And its record is far from confidence-boosting as it’s had already a string of relatively minor mishaps drilling in a nearby region.
For environmentalists such as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, to green light Shell’s plans is nothing less than ‘insane,’ given the Arctic’s harsh conditions and pristine areas. Besides its record, they also point to current melting of ancient North Pole glaciers, due to climate change, and the potential for a drilling race by other oil producers, as reasons to declare the Arctic off limits to oil companies.
Stung by the criticism, President Obama has used public appearances, and even social media, to defend the decision and highlight the restrictions imposed to Shell, including the requirement of having a capping stack, which would minimize damage caused by a well blowout.
In 2010, the cap of a well in a field operated by BP in the Gulf of Mexico blew up, causing the explosion of a rig, 11 deaths, and a record oil spill that still compromises life and the economy of several states in the region. BP’s still fighting a judicial order that condemned it to pay an estimated $20 billion to some of those affected. Massive wild life losses however will never be recovered.
That tragic but preventable accident dwarfed the extension of what was then the largest oil spill in U.S. waters, the 1989 grinding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in the Prince William Sound, Alaska. The event most people now associate with the high risks of digging for oil in such an untamed area, teeming with wild life, may be dwarfed even further if another similar mishap were to happen.
A strong argument to give the president some environment cred is his rule on carbon emissions which U.S. power plants need to cut to 32 percent by 2030. Think it’s too much time for that to be effective? Not so, judging by the industry’s strong reaction, and up to 16 states that already have expressed opposition to the measure. If they’re so against it, the president may be on to something.
Besides, without it, the U.S. will have little to show at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, to be held in Paris later this year. While even China has taken steps to curb emissions, we remain entangled in a sterile discussion as to whether climate change is even real.
In the end, Obama’s decision to allow Shell to dig owes more to geopolitics and the new realities dictated by changing whether patterns, and less to environment concerns or prospects for cheap oil. For while digging will immediately impact the already fragile balance in the Arctic basin, with unforeseen consequences to wild life, increase in oil production will be negligible at least in the first 20 years.
Powerful interests drive a potential race by multinationals to owe and explore the North Pole, to be sure, and the president is being pragmatic, as his support in Congress in matters concerning energy is tentative, at the most, and downright negative as a norm. After all, big oil openly sponsors members of his own party, and we all know what it’s expected from them in return.
But speaking of Arctic, there’s always a big bear smacked in the middle of the circle. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been trying for years take ownership of vast extensions of the region, and has once again submitted a petition to the U.N., claiming over a million square km of the sea shelf, and using ‘scientific’ facts to dispute similar claims from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway.
Just as in 2002, Putin believes that a big chunk of the North Pole belongs to Russia, obviously concerned about embargoes and trade restrictions it’s been facing from the West, as well as the area’s rich potential for not just oil and gas but also precious metals.
It’s unlikely that the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea will acquiesce his ambitions or that Putin will ever give up. And neither the nations jockeying for a potential horse on that particular sweepstakes will let their guard escape the gate. Besides, Putin’s not alone either in wanting to have a military presence in the coming age of a snowless Arctic as the U.S. Navy has plans of its own there too.
Thus the fight, or rather, the confusing brawl taking place at the ceiling of the planet, which is another less than inspiring way to call what’s essentially a misconception; let’s face it, since when Earth has a top and a bottom? And never mind whose Mapa Mundi it is.
The point is that on this contentious dispute, either the U.S. steps in, armed with stiff regulations and restrictions, or risks losing relevance. It’s simply not realistic to expect that it’ll be able to unilaterally curb oil companies from moving in for the literal kill.
As for the ‘kayactivists’ who bravely tried to prevent the inevitable, all credit to them for doing our bidding and making a point to Shell that the world is watching its every move. That’s goes to every other oil giant salivating to get drills into the melting tundra too.
Or so it should. Fact is, if it’s up to what we read and hear from the media, the top of the world could as well crash all over our heads for all anyone would care. But we do, because we’re with the ones who’ll drown tomorrow, who’ll lose their homes and cross the globe seeking shelter from the floods, the raging storms, the scarcity of resources that’s already been caused by man-made climate change.
Most of us won’t be around for a complete meltdown of the North, and the South, Poles for that matter. But the process has already started and what will determine whether it’s a reversible one is our ability to keep most of those areas untouched. That has been proved challenging but it’s not at all impossible. World citizens may play an important role demanding restrain from their governments.
It’s a moral duty to Americans to back leaders committed to environmental causes, and the protection of the Arctic, if we’re to stand a slim chance for survival in this ongoing meltdown. A good way to know a presidential candidate’s inkling in this matter is to check who’s funding his or her campaign, how many buts they add to their qualified statements, and whether their hair is unnaturally blond.
We may all get distracted in the turf war of modern politics, one that threatens to do away with a democratic electoral process, and replace it with the sheer power of cash. But please keep your eye on the ball, that big, solitary, beautiful blue ball that depends on our commitment to provide us with life in return. All other matters pale in comparison. Have a great week. WC