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Arctic Ocean vs. ANWR: Was there ever a choice for oil drillers?

Tony Hopfinger
Loren Holmes photo

Royal Dutch Shell is finally sinking a drill bit into the seabed of the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast, a milestone that company flack Curtis Smith was “pleased to announce” Sunday. As most who have closely followed Shell’s Arctic offshore drilling aspirations know, the multinational firm has spent more than $4.5 billion and six years to get to this point at the edge of the earth, which Smith also points out in his press release.

To be clear, Shell has the go-ahead to drill only to 1,400 feet, stopping a few thousand feet before it hits the vast quantities of oil and gas it hopes to find. That’s because it’s waiting on some other approvals.

Predictably, environmentalists Sunday lashed out about Shell’s drilling announcement. This statement came from an official at Greenpeace, those guys who like to generate publicity by acting like pirates on the high seas: “Shell has ignored the world’s best scientists, as well as millions of people around the world, who have all said repeatedly that the melting Arctic is a dire warning, not an invitation to make a quick buck. The company’s Arctic drilling program this summer has not only been an epic PR failure, but a dangerous logistical failure as well.”

Smith, on the other hand, says in his statement that it's "an exciting time for Shell and for Alaska. We look forward to continued drilling progress throughout the next several weeks and to adding another chapter to Alaska’s esteemed oil and gas history.”

RELATED: Shell gets OK to start Arctic drilling as Alaskans ready for risks, riches

It’s confusing when people say “Alaska’s oil and gas industry” in reference to Shell’s offshore ambitions. By leasing and allowing oil development on state lands, Alaska's government collects royalties, taxes and fees to fund most of the state budget. But Shell’s offshore drilling is happening in federal waters, and so Alaska’s coffers won’t grow much if Shell begins to produce oil. (By the way, the company would need to get approval to build a massive pipeline from the ocean, across the tundra, and to the trans-Alaska pipeline before it started pumping any crude. Some have estimated that project at around $40 billion.)

So Alaska doesn't get any oil riches, but it does take on a lot of risks. If something goes wrong and oily water starts lapping on Alaska’s Arctic shores, the state and its people will live with the aftermath, just as they did in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

Shell has done a lot to make sure that doesn’t happen. But after BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, nobody should be criticized for having some concern about Shell’s plans.

Which brings up an interesting question: How did the wildcatters, the state, the environmentalists, Congress, and anybody else who cares about oil and Arctic ecosystems decide to give up drilling on land in the far north and instead head dozens of miles into the Arctic Ocean to hunt for oil?

MORE: SPECIAL SERIES ON ARCTIC vs. ANWR

Should there have been a choice between the two?

In far northern Alaska, there are no deepwater ports, no nearby pipelines to those offshore oil prospects, no fully staffed offices for regulators to keep watch -- there’s nothing resembling the oil-spill response infrastructure you’d find elsewhere in the United States. Meantime, on state land at Prudhoe Bay and other North Slope oil fields, there is a maze of infrastructure, along with a 40-year-plus history of managing onshore oil development.

And not so far away from all of this sits an undeveloped oil patch estimated to hold billions of barrels of crude. And it’s on land -- not 60 miles offshore.

It is called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and it’s managed by the feds, just like the waters where Shell is drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

There was a time when drilling on ANWR’s coastal plain was among the biggest environmental debates of our time. It spawned a cottage industry that grew around either protecting or developing that tundra. Americans were inundated, sometimes deceptively, with images of the “last untouched wilderness,” caribou running free against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. There are actually no snow-capped mountains in the area where drilling would happen in ANWR. And the caribou that migrate where onshore drilling is currently taking place to the west have not seemed to be hurting.

Most important is that ANWR sits on solid ground (actually covered in snow a good part of the year) where an oil spill would be comparatively easy to handle than out at sea. In contrast, a spill in the Arctic Ocean would be a devastating mess, no matter what Shell executives say they’ve done to prevent such a disaster or their plans to respond to such a scenario.

Environmental groups have tried to prevent drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. But compared to their decades-long ANWR battle, this fight has seemed anemic. Perhaps the groups knew that offshore Arctic drilling was inevitable. Or perhaps the fight doesn’t provide for the kind of picturesque-fundraising that has done so well for them for so many years in the ANWR battle. Or maybe they were too focused on ANWR and too late in waging an offshore war.

The drill bit is turning in the Chukchi Sea, so the question is probably just theoretical.  

But if we could roll back the clock, how would we manage Arctic oil development today in a post-Deepwater Horizon world?

If politicians, oil executives and environmentalists were asked today to make a choice between drilling in ANWR or in the Arctic Ocean, which would they choose?

Alaskans, which would you choose? It's your back yard. Did anybody ever ask you?

Tony Hopfinger is the editor and co-founder of Alaska Dispatch. He can be reached at tony(at)alaskadispatch.com