ANCHORAGE, Alaska – An effort to give the United States a new source of domestic oil and refill the trans-Alaska pipeline took a hit Wednesday when Royal Dutch Shell PLC announced it will suspend offshore petroleum drilling in the Arctic Ocean for 2013.
Shell drilled last year in both the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast and in the Beaufort Sea off the state’s north coast.
But problems before and after drilling, culminating with the grounding of one of Shell’s two drill ships, left in doubt whether the company could make repairs in time to drill in 2013. Shell Oil President Marvin Odum answered that question with the announcement that the company would “pause” exploration to prepare equipment and vessels for drilling in the future.
“We’ve made progress in Alaska, but this is a long-term program that we are pursuing in a safe and measured way,” Odum said. “Our decision to pause in 2013 will give us time to ensure the readiness of all our equipment and people following the drilling season in 2012.”
Environmental groups bitterly oppose Arctic drilling in the rich ecosystem that supports endangered whales, polar bears, walrus and ice seals. They claim not enough is known about drilling’s effects on an ecosystem already being hammered by climate change, with summer sea ice continuing to be lost at a record pace. They also say oil companies have not demonstrated the ability to clean up a petroleum spill in ice-choked waters.
“This is the first good decision we’ve seen from Shell,” said Mike LeVine, an Alaska spokesman for Oceana, a conservation group. “Given the disastrous 2012 season, our government agencies must take advantage of this opportunity to reassess the way decisions are made about our ocean resources and to reconsider the commitment to explore for oil in the Arctic Ocean.”
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas exist below Arctic waters. The vast underwater reservoirs could be linked to shore by underwater pipelines and then overland to the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Shell in 2008 spent $2.1 billion on petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea and estimates that it has spent $5 billion on Arctic drilling.