More is better in the Arctic
Following the grounding of the conical drill unit (CDU) Kulluk on Sitkalidak Island, a number of environmental advocates have called for a ban on oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters. The argument is that such offshore drilling in a harsh environment is too risky and that the grounding proves that the industry is not capable of the work. Others have pointed out that the loss of the tow of the CDU Kulluk (which precipitated the subsequent grounding) did not occur in Arctic waters; therefore, drilling in Arctic waters should proceed as before. I propose that both are right – and wrong. Oil and gas drilling in places like the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea is complicated. That is why only a handful of companies undertake the effort. There are two major differences between offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea on the one hand and the Arctic on the other. First, the environment in the Arctic is harsher. That, though, is mostly a matter of degree. The Gulf of Mexico is subject to hurricanes and the North Sea experiences fierce storms, particularly in winter. The second difference is that there is no meaningful infrastructure in the Arctic. When you get into trouble in the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea, the Coast Guard or its counterpart is close at hand. Other government agencies are also nearby. Fishing vessels, support vessels, passing freighters, recreational vessels, and salvors are all in the vicinity. Oil spill responders, helicopters, and aircraft are standing by. None of this is true in the Arctic. People who work in the Arctic are largely on their own. There is no local fire and rescue service. There is no local hardware store that you can run to if you forgot a part or a tool breaks. What you have is whatever you brought with you. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those who venture into the Arctic, especially for difficult tasks such as offshore drilling, to take not only everything that need, but more than you think you will need. Wear both the belt and the suspenders!