Dwindling Arctic Ice Signals a Clear Need for Change

The dramatic changes happening in the Arctic should send shockwaves through the world about the polluting energy sources we use to power our lives. We can no longer operate in business-as-usual mode.
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In Hollywood’s latest cetacean love-fest, Big Miracle, three gray whales are trapped in the encroaching Arctic ice of the Chukchi Sea, soon to be part of a heroic rescue attempt by the local indigenous community, a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore) and an oil company executive (Ted Danson) looking for some good PR for his expanding Arctic drilling plans. While the film is based on a real whale drama that took place 25 years ago (the oil executive later went to prison for trying to bribe a U.S. senator), it was never clear if the whales actually survived the ordeal.

But today, what is clear is that the battle over Arctic oil drilling is as intense as ever. That's particularly true for Shell Oil, which has been fighting a losing battle to drill new exploratory wells in the frigid Chukchi and Beaufort Seas where harsh weather and tougher government drilling standards are proving nearly impossible to overcome.

This week Shell finally announced it would give up its year-long attempt to drill in these pristine seas until the ice thaws next season. The oil behemoth demonstrated a Keystone Cops-style series of gaffes and missed deadlines that hardly lends confidence to its ability to safely drill in one of the world’s most dangerous environments. As my NRDC colleague Chuck Clusen blogged, the snafus were a clear example of “Arctic drilling not ready for primetime.” Clusen listed them eloquently in his blog:

Shell’s fleet cannot meet EPA air quality regulations:

In the final weeks before the drilling fleet was set to begin its journey to the Arctic, Shell admitted that its drillship, the Noble Discoverer, could not meet the air quality standards required by the law. In order for the vessel to be in compliance, the standards needed to be relaxed to allow 300% more Nitrogen Oxides to be released than originally permitted and the for the limits of ammonia release be eliminated altogether. Similarly, the spill-response vessel, Nanuq, would need to be allowed to release up to 10x more particulate matter emissions than originally permitted.

The EPA granted a “compliance order” allowing shell to operate while releasing these elevated levels of pollution.

Drillship drags anchor while in harbor:

The Dutch Harbor Telegraph reported that the vessel was “stuck on the beach” for an hour. Shell’s representatives insist that the Discoverer did not run aground but “stopped very near the coast” Whichever the case, this incident raises concerns about whether or not Shell’s retrofitted vessels are ready for the harsh and unpredictable conditions of the Arctic.

Insufficient testing of oil containment systems:

Despite assurances of “comprehensive” testing to meet “rigorous new standards”, a FOIA lawsuit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) forced the release of the single page of notes pertaining to equipment testing. “The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200 feet of water without dropping it,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass. “The second test showed the capping system could hold up under laboratory conditions for up to 15 minutes without crumpling.”

Drilling for one day:

Shell was allowed to begin top-hole drilling even without all of its containment equipment ready and on-site. One day after the Noble Discoverer began drilling it was forced from the well site by encroaching sea ice. After nearly two weeks, the company has not resumed drilling.

Arctic Challenger certification mess:

Perhaps the biggest headache for Shell this summer is the Arctic Challenger retrofit. The containment vessel remains in Washington State, still lacking certification from the Coast Guard and the U.S. Bureau of Shipping. During the retrofit, several spills were recorded and the Arctic Challenger was fined by the Coast Guard. The Arctic Challenger holds a containment dome vital to Shell’s containment plan, this dome was damaged during testing last Saturday night. Without this containment equipment, Shell has announced it will postpone its plans to drill into oil-bearing regions this year.

But Shell’s drilling operations are not the only threat to the Arctic. The fast-paced Arctic melt continues to alarm climate scientists, who increasingly warn of greenhouse gas emissions' potential catastrophic impact on global weather patterns:

Arctic ice off Alaska Photo: NOAA

As Shell and other oil companies push to drill into the billions of barrels of hydrocarbons buried beneath the ice and tundra of the frozen north, the burning of these untapped fossil fuels threatens to unleash powerful climate-altering greenhouse gasses that could warp and permanently shift the world's critical atmospheric and oceanic currents. This shift in currents could worsen extreme weather patterns that are already on the rise, from deadly heat waves and crop-crushing droughts to rampaging floods and beach-battering coastal storms. As NRDC’s Dan Lashof blogged, what happens in the arctic doesn’t stay in the arctic:

First, the dramatic reduction in reflective ice in the Arctic Ocean changes the flow of energy in the climate system throughout the northern hemisphere. In particular, it alters the position and shape of the jet stream, favoring a pattern with more pronounced waves. That means that tropical air can penetrate further north and that arctic air can penetrate further south. It also means that weather systems tend to move more slowly from west to east. This is a formula for increasing extreme weather—both persistent excessive heat and severe snow storms.

Second, reduced arctic sea ice amplifies warming over the arctic, speeding the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and raising global sea levels. When sea ice melts there is no direct effect on sea levels because floating ice displaces exactly the same volume as the melt water. That’s not the case with land-based ice, such as the massive Greenland ice sheet. Excessive warmth in the arctic has led to surface melting throughout Greenland. Any runoff from the Greenland ice sheet contributes directly to increasing sea levels. And that means more coastal flooding in the United States, particularly on the East and Gulf coasts.

Third, arctic warming increases the total amount of heat absorbed by Earth and releases carbon from the not-so-permafrost, both of which amplify global warming. Sea ice acts like a windshield sunshade keeping your car cool. Replacing shiny ice surfaces with dark open ocean ones means the Earth as a whole absorbs more solar energy. The effect is equivalent to 20 years’ worth of carbon dioxide emissions according to Cambridge University physicist Peter Wadhams. In addition, as the arctic warms billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane currently trapped in the permafrost could be released, directly adding to the blanket of heat-trapping gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. All of which means even faster climate change, and even more extreme weather across the United States.

The dramatic changes happening in the Arctic should send shockwaves through the world about the polluting energy sources we use to power our lives. We can no longer operate in business-as-usual mode. Instead we have to shift aggressively toward clean energy technologies that already are providing new jobs and opportunities across the world—jobs without the damaging health impacts linked to dirty oil and coal.

Unfortunately many in U.S. political circles continue to ignore the rising tide of warnings from the science community. Instead, the few politicians who talk about climate change are mocked and belittled. This insanity has to change if we are to solve one of the most difficult and challenging health and environmental threats civilization has ever faced.

The story of the Arctic is not just about Shell Oil putting a region at risk by drilling in dangerous icy seas. It’s also a story about the rapidly changing global environment and the fundamental energy choices we need to make to create a sustainable future, choices we need to make now.

The melting of the Arctic is sending us a clear signal that it's time to change. It’s our job to make sure that politicians and oil executives hear that message loud and clear.

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