Shell No: Arctic drilling halted by major oil and gas company.

Photo: Mike Beauregard, flickr creative commons.

Photo: Mike Beauregard, flickr creative commons.

Greenpeace, environmentalists, and those that care about our Arctic have reason to celebrate. Last Monday, September 28th, Shell announced its retreat from arctic drilling for the “foreseeable future.”

Shell has spent over seven billion U.S. dollars on offshore development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. But after having drilled down over two thousand meters to find unsatisfactory oil deposits, Shell has stopped Arctic drilling, citing a lack of profitability as their main concern.

Shell generated much public disapproval throughout the process of their arctic exploration. This summer, protesters in Seattle and Portland took to the water in small boats and kayaks to block a rig on its way to Alaska to start drilling. In Portland, Greenpeace activists even rapelled off a bridge, delaying an icebreaker ship necessary to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.

Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world, due to fossil fuels like those Shell was looking to extract from our northern waters. These warm temperatures cause melting of permafrost and ice on land which leads to landslides, flooding and other damage to fragile arctic ecosystems and mammals. Warming has also caused significant melting of sea ice, which is critical habitat for polar bears and seals. 

Meanwhile, the possibility of an oil spill in a sensitive environment like the Arctic is exacerbated by its remote location, making adequate cleanup nearly impossible. In a remote area where ships are only able to deliver supplies in summer months, the equipment and manpower to control an oil spill spreading underneath hundred year old ice sheets would be quite difficult.

Noise from shipping traffic has also been proven to be disruptive to wildlife, especially whales. Because they communicate and locate prey using sound waves, whales are likely to have trouble feeding themselves, breeding and communicating dangers to each other with increased shipping traffic.

Increased shipping would also increase the likelihood of bringing non-native species in the ecosystem, making it only a matter of time until an invasive species may thrive and displace native Arctic flora or fauna.

American president Barack Obama has recently echoed scientists in stating that left unchecked, climate change will cause global conflict, refugees, submerged states, flooding and melting of permafrost and sea ice.

Given the incredible threat of immediate activity in the Arctic and the ongoing threat of climate warming, A plan that adds fossil fuels to our atmosphere may not prove advantageous. Greenpeace plans to continue with their goal of creating a protected sanctuary in international waters around the north pole.

Although the halting of Arctic drilling pleases Greenpeace, the development of Arctic resources and the future of the region has left local communities conflicted. While development, environmental degradation and warming threaten traditional ways of life, northerners often face extremely limited economic opportunities. Economic development could bring the hope of education, training and jobs to these communities.  

So how do we continue on this mission to protect the arctic? While we consider polar bears and their habitat, we must also consider and involve arctic communities in the development of their region. And one thing is absolutely certain: we cannot succeed without addressing climate change. Stopping Shell from drilling for oil is a good first step, but there is still a long ways to go.