The “good” news for wildlife around the Arctic Circle is that BP, renowned despoiler of the Gulf of Mexico, will not be coming.
BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also referred as the Macondo blowout), which surged for three months, has won a place in the Guinness book of records as the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
The bad news is that U.S. oil international Exxon Mobil has sealed an Arctic oil exploration deal with Russia’s state-owned oil firm Rosneft, following an agreement signed on 29 August in the presence of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Proving that the Cold War is well and truly dead, at least for multinationals, Putin gushed, "New horizons are opening up. One of the world's leading companies, Exxon Mobil, is starting to work on Russia's strategic shelf and deepwater continental shelf. The potential oil fields are some of the largest in circumpolar Arctic offshore area.
The contract stipulates that Exxon Mobil and Rosneft will jointly spend $3.2 billion on deepwater exploration in the Russian federation’s East Prinovozemelskii region of the Kara Sea.
Of course, Exxon Mobil did not walk away empty-handed, as the agreement also allows it to begin oil prospecting in the Black Sea. And Rosneft, pushing away from the casino table, will be permitted to develop fields in the Gulf of Mexico and Texas.
Last but not least, the two companies will also cooperate on the development of oil fields in Western Siberia, where production has been in decline for more than a decade.
But let’s get back to the Kara Sea for a moment.
Sandwiched between Novaiia Zemliia island and the Severnaia Zemliia archipelago, compared to its western neighbor, Compared to the Barents Sea, which receives warm Atlantic currents, the Kara Sea is much colder because of its isolation, remaining frozen for over nine months a year. The ice-locked sea is navigable only during August and September.
Furthermore, as the Kara Sea receives a vast amount of freshwater from the northwards flowing Siberian Ob, Yenisei, Pyasina, and Taimyra rivers, its salinity is variable, introducing yet another hydrological element of uncertainty into the proposed exploration.
Of course, what’s a few oil spills amongst comrades? After all, Russian environmentalist groups have protested for years that Russia’s Arctic regions were used as isolated dumping grounds for nuclear waste, and according to a March 1993 Russian Federation government official White Paper" between 1965-1988 the Soviet Union dumped six nuclear submarine reactors and ten nuclear reactors into the Kara Sea, along with solid high- and low-level wastes unloaded from Northern Fleet nuclear submarines. What are a few errant hydrocarbons gonna do admixed with some becquerels?
In an eerie echo of insistent Republican choruses of “drill, baby drill” for Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the proposed Kara Sea operations will impact the Russian Federation’s Great Arctic State Nature Reserve, the nation’s largest and in fact, the most massive in all of Europe, which was established in May 1993 by Resolution No.431 of the Russian Federation government. The Kara Sea reserve elements included the Sergei Kirov Archipelago, Voronina Island, the Izvestiy TSIK Islands, the Arctic Institute Islands, Svordrup Island, Uedineniya Island and a number of smaller islands.
And how will that precious oil be transported?
By tanker, of course.
In this regard, consider a report by Russian environmental Group Bellona about the 16 March 2009 incident where the nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal collided with the 16.168 ton tanker Indiga during ice escort duty in the Kara Sea, which was shuttling between the oil terminal in the Gulf of Ob and the floating oil storage vessel Belokamenka in the Kola Bay. The Indiga suffered a 31foot-long crack on its main deck from the impact of the collision, but fortunately the tanker was only carrying ballast at the time.
The Kara Sea oil exploration concept is one of those ideas that look good in boardrooms but bad in reality. The severe climate, combined with the difficulties of oil transport, should give pause to all except those inhaling seven figure salaries and three martini lunches. And never mind the fact that the waters contain some of the world’s richest fishing grounds.
The Exxon Mobil-Rosneft alliance has the tacit blessing of both the U.S. and Russian governments, so it will more than likely go forward.
Offshore drilling comes with attendant risks unlike land-based exploration, which the Macondo blowout proved. If it took BP three months to shut down its well in the relatively shallow and warm waters of the gulf of Mexico, then how do Exxon Mobil and Rossneft propose to deal with a similar incident in waters several hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle that are frozen for all but two months of the year?
Guess we’ll find out.
Good thing that polar bears can’t vote, but then, they’re an endangered species anyway, so even if they could, there are too few to matter.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com