Michael Macrander of Shell monitors Alaskan wildlife

Getting to oil and gas in the deep oceans near Alaska requires a higher degree of operating sensitivity, says Macrander, because whale populations could be disturbed by industrial noise.

Michael Macrander: If a marine mammal enters certain areas where they’re close to our operations, then they could potentially be at risk. Those observers have the authority and responsibility to either alter our activities or shut them down completely.

Michael Macrander leads the science efforts of Shell to monitor Alaskan wildlife. He spoke of different ways to monitor – including human marine mammal observers – unmanned or ‘drone’ aircraft – and also, for example, underwater acoustic recorders that can be left in place for long periods.

Michael Macrander: We are deploying a large network of recorders in both the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea. And these recorders can detect industry sounds, vessels. If there’s a drill ship out there or seismic vessel, we have a good understanding of the amount of sound that’s put into the environment. We also can detect and record the marine mammal calls as well.

And they use the information to understand where the marine mammals are, and also to adjust their own behavior.

Michael Macrander: These acoustic recorders are able to let us know the sound levels and look at individual activities on board our vessels and drill rigs, so that we can say, ‘ah, that’s a noisy activity.’ Can we put rubber mounts under an engine, or can we make an adjustment, can we alter the way that we work in order to be able to reduce our sound footprint.

He said further work was going on to find other ways to muffle the sounds of machinery such as by using bubble curtains – where compressed air is pumped into the water column to create a curtain of noise-dampening bubbles.

Dr. Macrander said some of Shell’s monitoring efforts of Alaska’s wildlife have resulted in new discoveries.

Michael Macrander: We see everything – bowhead whales, grey whales, orcas, fin whales. Some of our monitoring programs have actually reported the presence of a couple of whale species that have not really been previously recorded for the Alaskan Arctic.

He spoke to us about what he called ‘hard truths.’ One is that people in this century are using more and more energy. Another is that ‘easy’ oil is all but gone, driving more focus on out-of- the-way places such as Alaska and the deep ocean. But accessing oil and gas in these places requires, in his words, ‘a higher degree of operating sensitivity.’

This podcast was made possible in part by Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge.

Jorge Salazar