No matter how much the oil industry has argued that the "footprint" of development in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be small, no matter how many times Alaska politicians and business leaders have pointed out that ANWR is a frozen, snow-covered wasteland for much of the year, no matter the heights to which global oil prices have climbed, there has appeared no major crack in the defense of those defending "the last great wilderness."
On the surface, a rational choice between producing oil in ANWR instead of offshore in the Chukchi or Beaufort seas would appear a no-brainer. The Arctic oceans present what are arguably the planet's most hostile environments. Curtis Smith, an Alaska spokesman for Royal Dutch Shell, the global oil company spearheading exploration off Alaska's northern coast, has noted that in the job search for the world's best engineers, the company competes primarily with space exploration. It is a telling observation. Oil development in the constantly moving ice of the Arctic presents a Gordian knot of challenges, not unlike those faced in outer space.
And forget global warming. The Arctic ice pack might be shrinking, but as Shell learned this summer, drifting ice floes can quickly render that shrinkage irrelevant. Ice presents Shell and others all sorts of problems from the design of production platforms that will survive its pressure to the layout of onshore pipelines subject to threats from ice gouging to the nightmare question of how to clean up a spill. Clean up presents unique problems in that oil could end up on top of ice, trapped under ice, or caught in moving ice.
Because of the difficulties of cleanup, in fact, there appears consensus on the part of the oil industry, regulators and environmentalists alike that offshore drilling and oil production in the Arctic must be a fail-safe operation, much like a mission to the moon. The potential consequences of a spill, blowout or rupture of an undersea oil line are something no one really wants to contemplate.
No one much wants an onshore oil spill either. But it's equally clear the consequences there are not nearly so great.