The goal of all energy production must be to develop reliable, affordable supplies of energy in a safe manner that poses minimal environmental impact. Arctic oil and gas exploration represents a significant opportunity for America’s energy and economic future and a critical juncture for the United States in area of increasing geopolitical importance. With Royal Dutch Shell expected to begin drilling this month north of Alaska’s Arctic coastline, it’s time to address some public concerns in a rational, thoughtful way rather than through the heated accusations that have governed discourse on Arctic development thus far. We should also avoid looking at these issues through the silos that American political dialogue often creates and look at them through the pan-Arctic lenses of development in Norway, Russia, Canada and Greenland.
Hyperbolic assertions that Shell’s exploration program would be “game over” for the Arctic environment fail to consider the adaptability and capability of governance, science and technology to ensure economic and environmental sustainability and blithely ignore the achievements of international Arctic development to date. Balance is key. As is perspective.
First, we must acknowledge the sheer economic potential of the Arctic. The U.S. Arctic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) could contain 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which would make this the largest untapped basin of proven reserves in North America. Development of these resources would not only advance American energy self-sufficiency, but would also spur the creation of over 50,000 U.S. jobs and generate significant revenues for federal, state, and local governments for decades to come.
The most recent data shows that U.S. net oil imports averaged over 7.9 million barrels of oil a day in May 2012 at a cost of around $805 million. This representedover half of the trade deficit. Dependence and expenditures on imported oil affects our energy security, national debt, and ultimately economic growth.
The U.S. Chukchi and Beaufort Seas also hold prolific reserves of natural gas. Already, the American shale revolution has led to lower costs for consumers, including energy-intensive industries such as petrochemical and steel manufacturers, and lower U.S. carbon emissions. Additional supplies of cleaner burning natural gas will allow American consumers to expand manufacturing and utilize natural gas cost-effectively for other uses, such as natural-gas vehicles and as a source of back-up generation for wind and solar power. Technology has enabled the shale revolution, and it is enabling Arctic exploration as well.
We must also understand that Shell’s venture will not be the first of its kind. In fact, the United States is one of the last Arctic nations to join the march north of the Arctic Circle. Detractors tend to ignore the fact that Norway and Greenland have successfully established Arctic oil and gas offshore programs with Canada and Russia on the verge of similar efforts. When did Americans begin to cower from technological challenges?
Norway, the Arctic nation with the greatest offshore oil and gas experience, has invested considerable resources and time to advance an effective, safe and forward-looking development program. During my work in Norway as creator of the Arctic Dialogue Study Tour, I visited a Statoil liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in Hammerfest, Norway that exemplifies how the extractive industry has addressed Arctic development appropriately. The Melkøya plant processes natural gas extracted from the nearby Snøhvit field into LNG while utilizing carbon, capture and storage to minimize the carbon footprint of its operation. The benefits to the community are palpable. Snøhvit, in conjunction with other energy operations in the area, has boosted Hammerfest’s once-dwindling population, helped established hundreds of new businesses, and created a source of revenue for local infrastructure and social services programs.
As activity increases in the U.S. Arctic, companies like Shell will bring the tools needed to further our understanding of the region and to plan for future growth. OCS exploration, shipping and other commercial interests have already spurred significant investment in scientific research and infrastructure expansion that will further our comprehension of the Arctic environment and allow us to establish sustainable operations like the Snøhvit example.
Last year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with three international oil companies – Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil – to share high-quality data in order to enhance private-public collaboration on ocean, coastal and climate science in the Arctic. This type of private-public collaboration will also be critical to enhance U.S. objectives in the Arctic at a time of limited federal resources.
The global demand for oil will continue for decades until alternate fuels can provide adequate, affordable supplies for consumers. There is no evidence that Arctic energy development has stymied the expansion of alternative fuels. To the contrary, revenues from Norwegian oil and gas production have helped finance the country’s renewable energy and conservation programs. Utilization of all energy resources in conjunction with increased efficiency measures will be necessary to protect consumers and promote economic growth and security.
If we refuse to develop our Arctic resources, we will miss a critical opportunity to advance our economic, political and environmental goals in the region. The United States – through Shell’s program – has the ability to gain a foothold in the region and take the leadership role it should play in the future of Arctic development.