Shell Oil Scientists gather around the remnants of a sod house near the shore… (Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON…)
Beneath the placid, summertime surface of the Chukchi Sea here on the northwest coast of Alaska, an underwater canyon acts like a bathtub drain. From the south, three currents wash in from the Bering Strait, carrying loads of nutrients.
Plankton make tasty treats for bowhead whales, sea birds and fish. Benthos, organisms that live near the ocean floor, nourish walruses, diving ducks, gray whales, bearded seals and various fish.
“If you eat food in the water column, if you’re a ringed seal, that’s where you want to be,” says A. Michael Macrander, an environmental ecologist at Shell Oil.
That also happens to be where Shell wants to explore for oil. Located north of the Arctic Circle, this prospect has been called “the biggest next opportunity” in U.S. oil exploration by Shell’s president, Marvin Odum. Including leases bought in 2005 and 2008, his company has already wagered about $4 billion preparing. It hopes to drill three wells about 70 miles offshore here next summer.
The company faces three daunting issues: Is there a way to drill here without hurting sea life? How can the company build a pipeline that can withstand the ice and shifting shoreline? And if there were a spill, where would the water currents carry the oil?
Environmental groups and many Alaska Natives believe that Shell can’t provide satisfactory answers to those questions. They argue that there is a lack of data needed for the type of science-based decisions that the Obama administration has vowed to pursue.
“We don’t have the science . . . that would make people comfortable,” says Brooks Yeager, executive vice president for policy at the group Clean Air-Cool Planet and a former Interior Department official. “We just don’t know what we’re about to disturb.”
Shell has responded by collecting information needed for drilling permits and adding to the slim volumes of research about this remote corner of Alaska. This work will also help Shell predict what nature might throw at a big oil company in what can be a very inhospitable environment.
A small team of hydrologists, soil experts and oceanographers recently spent more than two weeks collecting data. Other scientists are working from boats to study the feeding and migratory habits of sea life that Alaska Natives in the area, the Inupiat, depend on for food.
Since the Chukchi Sea is frozen most of the year, the scientists don’t have much time.
Companies have been producing oil in northern Alaska for more than three decades, pumping crude from Prudhoe Bay east of here and carrying it out through the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.
But the Chukchi Sea is an unusual place, teeming with sea mammals, and many of its unique features make Shell’s job more delicate.
Earl Kingik, an Alaska Native from Point Hope to the south, who opposes drilling, uses a common phrase when he says the Chukchi “is the garden that provides food for our community.” In Wainwright, people have chests and storage caves full of food from whales, seals, walruses and caribous.
Kingik started whaling when he was 12, learning from his uncles and father. “I know the weather patterns and when animals are going to come,” he said. The coast along Point Hope, he says, “is very special. We don’t have to go elsewhere. The animals come to us.” The warm currents are the reason why.
Even without offshore drilling, climate change may threaten the migratory and feeding patterns of sea mammals here.
The year 2007 was a record for “ice recession,” prompting large numbers of walruses, which normally do their sunbathing on icebergs, to come ashore to warm up. If frightened, they could stampede; in 2009, 100 young walruses were trampled south of Wainwright. This year, at least 8,000 walruses have come ashore on a beach about 50 miles southwest of Wainwright, an event that World Wildlife Fund biologist Geoff York said was a result of “extreme Arctic sea ice melt caused by climate change.”
Shell has instructed its helicopter pilots to steer clear of any walrus “haulouts” they see or hear about. Every morning before setting out from Wainwright, Shell’s science team holds a conference call with local guides who recommend places to avoid based on reports from hunters from the village.
But if helicopter noise is a concern now, noise from drilling, seismic surveys and shipping is a concern for the future.
“One of the critical issues is sound,” Macrander says. “Most marine mammals rely on sound to communicate.” He acknowledges that any industrial activity offshore “has the potential to disrupt and interfere” with those mammals. Shell has placed 45 acoustic listening devices in the Chukchi Sea and 35 others farther northeast in the Beaufort Sea.