Arctic Drilling

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The Arctic Circle is one of the last global regions to be explored for oil, and comprises about 6% of the world's land mass. As global warming melts the ice caps, ships are able to sail through the Northwest Passage for the first time, facilitating drilling and extraction by oil companies.[1] Scientists estimate that the Arctic region contains nearly 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil reserves.[2][3] These reserves are mostly located offshore under water that is frozen for most of the year. It is not known how much of the resources can be recovered, or whether it will be profitable to do so.

In 2009 the countries of the world agreed under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that an increase in average global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius was the "upper limit" threshold for "dangerous climate change" and all nations should work to ensure the world does not exceed that amount.[4] In a 2015 article published in Nature, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins found that much of the earth's known oil and coal reserves must be left in the ground and not be burned in order to keep the average global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius above the average global temperature of pre-industrial times. Their study found that the greenhouse gas emissions contained in the presently known fossil fuel reserves around the world are triple the amount that can be released without causing catastrophic warming.[5] According to The Guardian, "[The study] shows trillions of dollars of known and extractable coal, oil and gas, including most Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas and much potential shale gas, cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to be kept under the 2C safety limit agreed by the world’s nations."[6]

Resource development corporations, including Shell, BP, and ConocoPhillips, are moving forward with plans for exploratory drilling in the Arctic region. Despite extreme conditions, unpredictable weather patterns, failed attempts, and high sunk costs--not to mention the environmental hazards--companies continue to pursue permits and are planning exploratory drilling missions. Oil and gas corporations are expected to invest over $100 billion in offshore drilling by 2023.[7]

478px-Arctic circle.png

Oil and Gas Companies Active in the Arctic Circle

Royal Dutch Shell

In a major victory for climate campaigners, on September 28, 2015, Shell announced it was leaving the Arctic region "for the foreseeable future" because it failed to find enough oil to make further drilling worthwhile. AP reports: "Shell drilled to 6,800 feet about 80 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast and just didn't find much." ”Big oil has sustained an unmitigated defeat," Greenpeace UK Executive Director John Sauven told the AP. [8]

Royal Dutch Shell had been the oil company most aggressively moving forward with exploratory drilling in offshore Alaska. Despite the large financial risks, Shell Oil was poised to resume its drilling activities after several accidents with their drilling equipment shut down the operation in 2013. As of July 2015, Shell had invested nearly $7 billion in exploratory activities in the Arctic, an indicator of the potential profit which could result from a successful run this year. The Wall Street Journal reported on the sheer size of the operation: “The company is hauling two massive rigs—the Polar Pioneer and the Noble Discoverer—more than 2,000 miles up and around the Alaska coast to the Chukchi Sea, where it plans to begin work the third week of July [2015]. Accompanying the rigs are 30 support vessels and seven aircraft, a large entourage even by big oil-company standards.”[9] With other firms watching to see if Shell’s big gamble pays off, the summer of 2015 may be a tipping point for the future of Arctic exploration, according to The Wall Street Journal.[10]

Shell was granted permission in 2012 by the U.S. government to perform exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea[11] after Shell's spill response plan was approved. But according to Greenpeace, "even a quick read shows that the company would be entirely unable to respond to an accident in the High North. In fact, it's more like a negligence plan than a spill plan, depending on a capping and containment system that hasn't even been built, on deflection barriers that will not work properly in ice and with on-shore clean-up plans that look like they've been drawn by children."[12] In the 1980s and 1990s, oil wells found in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas were not considered profitable enough to pursue, according to Nature. “Speculation is that Shell has learned a lot and may be poised to hit the jackpot this time,” environmental chemist Jeffrey Short of JWS Consulting in Juneau, Alaska told Nature.[13]

In an attempt to greenwash its image, in 2015 Shell was contemplating removing the world "oil" from its name.[14]

In September 2015, Shell halted exploration after $7 billion of spending ended with a well off Alaska that failed to find any meaningful quantities of oil or natural gas, as "Bloomberg" noted.[15]

Federal Oil and Gas Lobbying

As of July 2015: [16]

  • 2015: $1,960,000 (total reported as of July 21)
  • 2014: $8,420,000
  • 2013: $9,070,000
  • 2012: $14,480,000
  • 2011: $14,790,000

Ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council

Shell Oil Company was an ALEC Civil Justice Task Force member, Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force Member, "Chairman" level sponsor of 2011 ALEC Annual Conference ($50,000 in 2010), member of Louisiana Host Committee, and sponsor of the August 4th, 2011, Plenary Session speeches of ALEC "scholars" Arthur B. Laffer and Stephen Moore.

In August 2015, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it planned to let its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) lapse early next year, explicitly citing the organization's stance on climate change. [17]

See below for more about Arctic drilling and the American Legislative Exchange Council.


British Petroleum, also known as BP, was the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Since then, BP been trying to rebrand its image[18].

BP holds the largest share of the consortium that manages the Trans Alaskan Pipeline and needs its revenue to pay for the Gulf blowout, according to The New York Times.[19] As oil production on the North Slope declines, BP and others are looking for other oil sources to feed the pipeline. One of BP's targets is the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and as part of BP's campaign to exploit protected areas, it is working to get restrictions on the world's protected areas relaxed. BP was the first company to win drilling concessions from Greenland.[20] The company is also working with Russian state-owned company Rosneft to drill in the Arctic.[21]

Federal Oil and Gas Lobbying

As of July 2015:[22]

  • 2015: $1,145,000
  • 2014: $5,660,000
  • 2013: $8,270,000
  • 2012: $8,920,000
  • 2011: $8,430,000

Ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council

BP America, Inc., previously had several ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, including being a "President" level sponsor of 2011 ALEC Annual Conference ($100,000 in 2010). Member of ALEC's Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force. BP announced on March 23, 2015 that it had declined to renew its membership in ALEC. See Corporations that Have Cut Ties to ALEC for more.

See below for more about Arctic drilling and the American Legislative Exchange Council.


ConocoPhillips claims to be the largest oil producer in Alaska, according to its website. It has projects in the North Slope, is working in the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska (NPR-A), and has projects planned for Greater Mooses Tooth in the NPR-A.[23] The company has 71 blocks of U.S. offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, but as of 2013 its exploratory activities were suspended "due to federal regulatory uncertainty."[24][25][26]

Federal Oil and Gas Lobbying

As of July 2015:[27]

  • 2015 - $1,002,965
  • 2014 - $3,969,840
  • 2013 - $4,242,353
  • 2012 - $3,863,736
  • 2011 - $20,557,043

Ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council

ConocoPhillips was a "Director" level sponsor of 2011 ALEC Annual Conference ($10,000 in 2010). ConocoPhillips spokesperson Daren Beaudo confirmed to CMD in June 2013 that the company was no longer a member of ALEC, did not fund ALEC in 2012, and had no plans to do so in 2013. See Corporations that Have Cut Ties to ALEC for more. In 2014, however, ConocoPhillips -- under the name of Phillips 66 -- was a "Director" level sponsor of the 2014 ALEC Annual Conference.

See below for more about Arctic drilling and the American Legislative Exchange Council.


Chevron has interests in the western Canadian Arctic and is developing technology to access oil and gas resources in the Arctic region at the Chevron Arctic Center in Calgary, Alberta, according to its website.[28][29] Chevron has been exploring the Beaufort Sea since the 1950s, holds two licenses, and has done one of the largest surveys of the Canadian Beaufort Sea. Chevron also holds interests in the Flemish Pass Basin.[30]

Federal Oil and Gas Lobbying

As of July 2015:[31]

  • 2015: $2,020,000
  • 2014: $8,280,000
  • 2013: $10,530,000
  • 2012: $9,550,000
  • 2011: $9,510,000

Ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council

Chevron Corporation was a "Director" level sponsor of 2011 ALEC Annual Conference ($10,000 in 2010), a member of ALEC's Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force, “Chairman” level sponsor of the 2012 ALEC Annual Meeting, and "Vice Chairman" level sponsor of the 2014 ALEC Annual Conference.

See below for more about Arctic drilling and the American Legislative Exchange Council.


ExxonMobil is involved in several projects in different regions of the Arctic Circle. In the Russian Federation, an Exxon subsidiary, Exxon Neftegas Limited, is in charge of the Sakhalin-1 project, which is one of the largest oil and gas projects in Russia and involves oil and gas fields off the northeast coast of Sakhalin Island.[32] It will begin developing Arkutun-Dagi field in 2015. It has been drilling in Chayvo field since 2005, which is where the world's longest extended reach well was drilled. This site has on- and offshore drilling and production, and the oil and gas produced in Sakhalin is pipelined here. Exxon has been producing offshore from Odoptu field since 2010, and sending this oil to Chayvo. It is developing the Dekastri terminal for exporting of crude oil. It is also operating on the Russian Arctic Shelf.[33]

ExxonMobil has also been active in Alaska for more than 60 years. It is the largest holder of discovered gas in the North Slope, and largest holder of findings in Prudhoe Bay. The North Slope supplies the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The Point Thompson natural gas project is slated for production in 2016.[33]

In Canada, the Norman Wells project has been producing oil since 1920. The Grand Banks - Hibernia field has a platform rig that is able to withstand contact with a six-million ton iceberg. The Grand Banks - Hebron site will be developed starting 2017. ExxonMobil is working with the Canadian government in regards to the Beuford Sea, to "develop these resources safely". Exploration studies were conducted in 2012 and 2013 in the Kara Sea, and established the Arctic Research and Design Center. Exploratory drilling began in 2014.[34]

Exxon operates four offshore projects and holds interest in 20 more projects in the Norwegian North Sea.[35]

Two 2015 Reports Detail Exxon's Early Knowledge of Climate Change

In September of 2015, Inside Climate News published a series of articles by Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song, and David Hasemyer on the history of Exxon’s relationship to climate change research. The story illustrates Exxon’s shift from a pioneer in groundbreaking climate change research to a group at the forefront of climate change denial. The expose includes a [timeline summary of events].

In October 2015, the Los Angeles Times revealed that the company used scientists to assess the climate change problem and quietly factored climate change calculations into its planning for oil operations in the Arctic. The first installment in the Times expose can be accessed here [here.] [36]

Exxon Mobile Seeks Extension for Test Drilling in the Artic

On June 26, 2015, Exxon Mobil announced that it was suspending drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea that it had begun with an oil industry consortium.[37] In a Wall Street Journal report, the company stated that the group needed more time to begin test drilling before 2020 when its lease is set to expire.[37] The group is now seeking an extension so that it is economically feasible to start drilling. "The Imperial-led consortium has been planning to drill a well as deep as 6 miles beneath the floor of the Beaufort Sea, one of the deepest offshore wells in the world and the deepest by far in the Arctic," the Wall Street Journal states.[37]

Exxon Mobil was also forced to cease drilling operations in the Russian arctic in late 2014 due to sanctions placed on Russia by the EU and the United States.[38] The project worth an estimated $700 million is on hold indefinitely.[38]

Despite 2007 Pledge, Continued Funding of Climate Change Denial

In 2007, under pressure from shareholders, Exxon pledged to stop funding climate denial groups. But as reported by The Guardian, Exxon's tax and financial records show that since then the company has given more than $2.3 million to members of Congress who deny climate change and to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has continually blocked efforts to address climate change.[39]

Federal Oil and Gas Lobbying

As of July 2015:[40]

  • 2015: $3,170,000
  • 2014: $12,650,000
  • 2013: $13,420,000
  • 2012: $12,970,000
  • 2011: $12,730,000

Ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council

ExxonMobil Corporation's Cynthia Bergman was an ALEC "Private Enterprise" Board of Directors member, a Member of ALEC's Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force, Civil Justice Task Force, and Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force; "Chairman" level sponsor of 2011 ALEC Annual Conference ($50,000 in 2010), member of Louisiana Host Committee, "Vice Chairman" level sponsor of the 2012 ALEC Annual Meeting, "Chairman" level sponsor at the 2013 ALEC Annual Conference ($50,000), host committee for the 2013 ALEC Annual Conference, and "Vice Chairman" level sponsor of the 2014 ALEC Annual Conference.

See below for more about Arctic drilling and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Other Companies

  • Cairn Energy has been operating exploratory wells off Greenland's coast.[41][42] Greenpeace has expressed concerns about Cairn's safety plans:
Cairn's oil spill response plan, eventually made public after months of pressure from Greenpeace, is, as oil spill expert Rick Steiner underlined, wholly inadequate. So-called "solutions" like transporting blocks of contaminated ice to warehouses and letting them melt to recover the oil, or claims that fish have been found to swim away from oil (which experts have shown is simply not true), are outlandish and unrealistic.[43]
  • Gazprom, a Russian energy company, operates in the far north and Arctic Russian and Norwegian Waters.[41][42]
  • Rosneft is a Russian state-owned company, collaborating with ExxonMobil to explore the Kara Sea, as well as working with Statoil of Norway and Eni of Italy in the Barents Sea.[42]
  • Iceland's Kolventni (merged with Eykon Energy)[44]
  • Valiant Petroleum of Britain (acquired by Ithaca Energy)[44]
  • Faroe Petroelum (based in Scotland and Norway)[44]
  • Iceland Petroleum[44]
  • China National Offshore Oil Corporation[44]
  • Imperial Oil, which has the goal of drilling in Canadian seas by 2020, according to CBC.[46]
  • Statoil is Norway's state-owned energy group.[47] As described in Nature,
Statoil already operates the world’s most northerly liquefied natural-gas production facility near Hammerfest, which draws gas equivalent to about 48,000 barrels of oil a day from the Snøhvit field in the Arctic waters off Norway. By 2020, the company hopes to extract one million barrels of oil equivalent a day from new wells in the Arctic. It is planning exploratory drilling later this year, for example, in the Skrugard and Havis gas fields that were discovered in the Barents Sea last year.[48]

Arctic Drilling and the American Legislative Exchange Council

The American Legislative Exchange Council, in addition to receiving significant funding from oil and gas companies, promotes several model bills to support expansion of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic region. These include:

About ALEC
ALEC is a corporate bill mill. It is not just a lobby or a front group; it is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, corporations hand state legislators their wishlists to benefit their bottom line. Corporations fund almost all of ALEC's operations. They pay for a seat on ALEC task forces where corporate lobbyists and special interest reps vote with elected officials to approve “model” bills. Learn more at the Center for Media and Democracy's, and check out breaking news on our site.


Risk of Catastrophic Oil Spills

The risk of a catastrophic spill, blowout, or other disaster is very high. The U.S. Department of the Interior states that there is a 75 percent chance of a spill in Arctic waters.[49] One of the biggest concerns is that it will be very difficult to clean up a spill under icy conditions, and the window for working in the Arctic is only a few months each year. The lack of infrastructure and limited scientific knowledge about wildlife and ecological systems in the Arctic may greatly hamper clean-up efforts, as a representative of the ocean conservation group Oceana explained to Nature.[50] According to Greenpeace, "[T]he successful drilling of vital relief wells, crucial to permanently capping a ruptured well, could not be guaranteed before the winter ice returns. If relief wells are left unfinished over the winter, oil could continue to gush out for up to two years."[51]

Risk to Wildlife

According to Greenpeace, the Arctic:

houses a diverse range of unique wildlife: hundreds of species of seabirds, millions of migrating birds; 17 different species of whale live there, while experts believe that 90% of the world's narwhal population can be found in Baffin Bay alone. Mammals including Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes and various species of seal inhabit the Arctic at different points throughout the year. The impact of a spill on these communities and already vulnerable animal species would be devastating and long-lasting.[52]

Additionally, the World Wildlife Federation notes the potential dangers of the noise caused by drilling:

Ocean noise can injure marine mammals. Whales and other marine mammals use sound to navigate, find mates, and find food in the often dark waters of the ocean. Seismic noises, like the air gun used by oil and gas companies to explore for oil offshore, can be deafening for these species. Excessive ocean noise from oil and gas exploration and drilling could cause injury, confusion, and even death.[53][54]

Slow spill clean up would have long term impacts on wildlife, as The Atlantic has reported.

In an extremely cold sea, liquids take longer to disappear through evaporation or dilution. That’s why a circulating vortex of oil would be not just lost profits for Shell, but a major risk to Arctic wildlife. Crude oil contains certain elements that, when it’s spilled, may stick around long enough to damage fish gills before evaporating or diluting, says [Alexander] Horne, the Berkeley professor [of ecological engineering]. As bad as the gill damage would be, even worse effects on marine life would likely come from the toxic and corrosive phenols in oil. “You could jump in a barrel of oil and you’d be oily-looking. If you jumped in a barrel of [pure] phenol, you’d be dead within minutes,” Horne says.[55]

Risks to Indigenous Communities

Over 40 different indigenous groups have inhabited the Arctic for thousands of years, comprising about 10 percent of the total Arctic population, according to the Finland-based Arctic Centre. Major groups include:[56]

  • Saami - Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Northwest Russia
  • Nenets, Khanty, Evenk and Chukchi in Russia
  • Aleut, Yupik and Inuit (Iñupiat) in Alaska
  • Inuit (Inuvialuit) in Canada
  • Inuit (Kalaallit) in Greenland

Some of these groups favor drilling, while others are against, as National Geographic has noted. Drilling poses risks to wildlife that many communities rely on for subsistence and which are culturally important to many (such as caribou for Gwich'in and the bowhead whale for Inupiat Eskimos).[57]

Groups and Individuals in Favor of Arctic Drilling

  • Energy Stewardship Alliance: As the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, the Energy Stewardship Alliance is a corporate front group created in 2001 to support Arctic drilling initiatives. It has ties to Arctic Power, "an oil industry front group established to promote oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."[58][59]

Groups and Individuals Opposing Arctic Drilling

As countries that hold rights to Arctic territories continue to offer new leases to oil companies on previously unexplored lands, opposition is mounting from indigenous communities and environmental NGOs. These groups are concerned about protecting their ecosystems, local livelihoods, and inhabitants, as a report by the Woodrow Wilson Center notes.[41]

  • - As reported by The Guardian:
The campaign group put out a direct challenge to Barack Obama to shut down long-term infrastructure projects linked to the fossil fuel industry. “If President Obama wants to live up to the rhetoric we’re seeing out of Germany, he’ll need to start doing everything in his power to keep fossil fuels in the ground. He can begin by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline and ending coal, oil and gas development on public lands,” said May Boeve, the group’s director.[63]
  • Greenpeace - In 2015 Greenpeace activists protested Arctic Drilling at the White House,[64] made a blockade of small boats and kayaks to prevent Shell's rig from heading to the Arctic,[65] and scaled and occupied an Arctic-bound rig in the Pacific ocean.[66]
  • Alaska Wilderness League - As reported by ABC, the Alaska Wilderness League "lists oil drilling and climate change as the two largest threats to regional wildlife."[67] AWL is the only national grassroots organization that is entirely focused on saving Alaska's wilderness.[68]


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