Exploration, Exploitation, Ecology, and Economy

So many E’s, but must we pick only one?

Ever since applying for this internship, my ears have become attuned to the words “polar”, “arctic”, and “antarctic”. Which is why, while listening to NPR yesterday, this  story caught my attention:

Shell Faces Pushback As Alaska Drilling Nears

The federal government could soon give the final go-ahead for Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Shell has spent $4 billion since 2007 to prepare for this work, and is hoping to tap into vast new deposits of oil.

Shell has built the Nanuq, a spill-response ship with low-sulfur fuel and clean air technology they claim is more environmentally friendly than its comparable siblings in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship is even painted blue and white in order to be less threatening to whales. Yet these particular furnishings only came about after Shell’s proposal to drill offshore last year was stymied by environmental groups.

The Nanuq
Photo: royaldutchshellplc.com

The environmentalist groups,  in a surprising alliance with the whale-hunting communities, are coming forward again this year to dispute the ocean drilling. They are claiming the science and the data needed to determine responsible drilling or spill recovery simply isn’t there yet. Plus, scientists are still trying to determine which parts of the arctic ocean are possible marine wildlife preserves.

Interestingly enough, not all Alaskans are not putting up a fight against this. In fact, many citizens are all for it. Alaska’s economy has depended on off-shore oil-drilling for years. Drilling creates jobs and and an exportable resource which could enhance a fizzling economy in Alaska.

I was living in Austin  when the 2010 BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf and I recall the outcry against off-shore drilling by not only environmental groups, but from people who had never before  considered the effects of an oceanic oil spill. It was crushing, thinking about the amount of marine life affected by the spill, or the thought of all the oil washing up on those familiar beaches. (Gulf currents are hard to predict and the wash up hit mostly on the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.) However, nature is more self-sufficient than we give her credit for. Remember those amazing microbes, which feast on oil and methane? Although their existence was known, no one expected the effect they would have, and apparently the bacteria is there to stay.  Of course, we cannot necessarily depend on oil loving microbes to come in and save the day. (They could be adverse to cold climates, for which I can’t really blame them.)

BP Deepwater Horizon spill and the oil-loving microbes
Photo: foxnews.com

The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R)  in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the leading science agency in disaster response regarding oil and chemical spills.  (The Environmental Protection Agency is the leading federal agency.) The OR&R has an excellent blog where they discuss their activities in the research and recovery of spills. Prior to reading the blog, I had no idea that approximately 14,000 spills are reported annually, according to the EPA.

Shell’s plans for drilling were shot down before. Will the environmentalists prevail again? Or will Alaska’s economic need outweigh the risks? Are there extra steps Shell can take, not only to prepare for accidents, but to prevent them from happening?

In an absolute battle, who would win? Royal Dutch Shell or the oil-devouring microbes?


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About polararchivesintern

Kristin MacDonough is a Texas born University of Texas baccalaureate and Moving Image Archiving and Preservation graduate student at New York University interning for the summer of 2012 with The Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program. Say that five times fast. (I'm also an amateur science nerd and it appears I'm a big fan of universities.)
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