Saturday we participated in a Sea Shepherd volunteer garbage clean-up at Cannon Beach, a stretch of the Oregon coast noted for its nesting pelagic birds on scenic Haystack Rock. Haystack is one of the few sites on Earth where you can see fledgling murres, pigeon guillemots, puffins and cormorants, etc. take their first flights without intruding on some remote, fragile location like the arctic
Being the birthplace of so many vast flocks of seabirds, the arctic is supposed to be remote, but now, because of climate change, the Arctic Ocean is becoming more and more accessible to people most of whom have nothing but bad intent, like those at Shell Oil, who’s planning to drill for oil in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea in a matter of days. In 1980, before most scientists even understood about global warming, Canadian naturalist John Livingston wrote a book, Arctic Oil: the Destruction of the North? about the risks to wildlife and nature inherent in drilling for oil in such an environment.
From Arctic Oil, “In winter, vast flocks of murres from the arctic islands drift south on prevailing currents to waters off Newfoundland, where they find themselves on or adjacent to major shipping lanes between North America and Europe. The concentration of murres often coincides with the concentration of oil. If a bird’s wings are oiled, they cannot fly, and if food is not immediately available, it will starve. Or, if its body is even slightly oiled, its feathers will lose their insulating properties and the bird will succumb to exposure in icy waters. Some birds, on the other hand, do make it to shore, where they attempt to preen their feathers clean. These will often die of starvation before they can take to the air again, or will perish from the toxicity of the oil swallowed during the preening process.
“It is impossible to know how many murres, eider ducks and other sea birds have been destroyed in this way over the years.”
In one spill off the British coastline, “160 kilometers had been oiled; it was estimated later that 25,000 sea birds died. It was a good ten years before the local biological system appeared to have healed.
“The record of accidental spills is cause not for mere concern but for raw fear. Oil tankers have become very large and numerous. At more or less regular intervals one of them cracks up.
“There seems no option but to expect that there will be more such events as super-tanker traffic intensifies on the high seas of the world. Year-round shipping, under all conditions, is being seriously proposed for the Northwest Passage. Accidents are wholly unpredictable as to timing and location, but entirely predictable in a sense of probability.
And on drilling Livingston writes, “In the high arctic islands, unfortunately, and in the Beaufort Sea and the Mackenzie Delta there are zones of ‘abnormally high’ geostatic pressure, which of course heightens the possibility of accident…The first such event in the Canadian arctic…took two weeks to shut off the gushing gas [natural—mostly methane.] A month later the well blew out of control again; this time it could not be shut down until more than a year after the initial explosion. During that time it lost gas at the rate of 85,000 cubic meters per day. Five months after the Drake Point well blew out, another Pan Arctic well, this time on King Christian Island, went out. This one lost gas at about 2.8 million cubic meters per day, and, unlike the Drake Point gas jet, this one was on fire. The gigantic flame was finally extinguished three months later.
“Leaving to one side for the moment the sheer mechanical difficulty of dealing with a blow-out under the ice, or on the sea floor, or on the permafrost, the possible consequences for wildlife such as sea birds, even on the open arctic water, are hair-raising. (Of course a blow-out of Campeche massiveness would not be required; a much lesser spill, or even the accumulated effect of ‘normal’ leakage, could create havoc in the high arctic waters.)
“The critical question seems to be this: in certain knowledge of the undeniable risk, is the risk worth taking?”
Drilling for oil in the arctic is not just dead wrong, as Al Gore recently stated, “It’s crazy!” And he wasn’t even talking about global warming at the time.