Robert Blaauw on oil exploration and development in the Arctic
These podcasts – made possible in part by Shell – focus on a report by the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change. The report is titled The Shared Future. The Aspen Institute and Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation released the report in early 2011. It highlights the need for global cooperation in the Arctic, as climate warms and polar ice melts, and as tourism and industrialization increase at far northerly latitudes. Robert Blaauw, a special advisor for Shell International, participated in the Commission on Arctic Climate Change and spoke to EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar about oil exploration and development in the Arctic. To learn more, LISTEN OR READ: audio podcasts above, text below.
Since the Arctic is so vulnerable, why go into it with the goal of resource development? Why is this necessary?
I’m glad that you asked the question from a global perspective. You need to look at the energy requirements in the world. Today there are 6.9 billion people. By 2050, there will be roughly nine billion. We believe that the energy demands for those nine billion will be twice the amount of what it is today for the 6.9 billion.
So we need to find energy sources. And there will be a whole mix of sources – renewable, oil and gas, nuclear. I think we need them all. We need them all, but only if they can be developed in a sustainable way.
How can the Arctic be developed sustainably?
“Sustainably” means you provide sustainable benefits for the people who live in the Arctic, for energy consumers worldwide, and then for the company. You can do that through cooperation and partnerships that are aimed at minimizing the footprint on the environment.
We believe that a lot of oil and gas resources are located in the Arctic – yet to be found – and it might be really a big number, and the world needs it. So we’re after it, but only if we can do that in a responsible manner. That takes time. That means the relationships and the technology to do that in a limited footprint way.
What are the main issues the oil industry sees for operating in the Arctic?
There are a number of key issues. First of all, we need to be able to operate there safely in a very harsh environment characterized by very low temperatures in the winter, by sea ice and remoteness.
And, at the same time, we should be able to limit our impact through technology and through designing a program that limits exposure of people to Arctic operations and also makes less impact on the traditional communities, while at the same time providing employment benefits.
Another key challenge is to take the fear away on the possibility of oil spills – and to have an answer to oil spills in the remote chance that it would happen. There are a lot of research programs going on at the moment to answer that question.
When you do exploration drilling, you do it in the summer season, as soon as the ice is away and there are 24 hours of daylight. You usually drill in very shallow seas so the pressures are low.
So the environment for drilling is good, and the chance of oil spills is really minute. But, at the same time, you would have the operating capability to respond to it immediately.
What are some key examples of technology utilized in the Arctic to minimize the environment impact of oil and natural gas development?
Let’s first also talk about exploration, because first you need to find the oil before there’s even a chance of developing. What you need to do there is limit your footprint through smaller drilling vessels, by suppressing the noise from these drilling vessels, and by limiting the discharges and emissions from those vessels.
In the Beaufort Sea in Alaska, for instance, we would propose a zero discharge option that collects the drill cuttings, the mud, the spent water, and ships it into a place where it can be safely disposed of.
Later on, you go to development. There are drilling techniques that go for extended reach wells, which may be 10 kilometers or more horizontal, and you can then drill multiple wells from one facility so that there was very limited surface footprint. You may develop a whole field.
Now that would be for shallow waters. In deeper waters you may think of wells completed on the seabed and flowing through buried pipeline to shore.
We have pioneered this technique in Ormen Lange in Norway. It’s not entirely Arctic, but it’s up north on the Atlantic margin of Norway, and there it operates very satisfactorily. So you would then have no surface footprint at sea at all, and that would be valid for greater water depths where you can’t have ground-based platforms.
You need to look at the life cycle kind of footprint of your operation and try to minimize that through every single phase.
Let’s talk about the social impacts of oil exploration and development on people who live in the Arctic.
When you go into the Arctic, usually there are not many people living there. But there are some people, indigenous populations like Inupiats, who have lived there already for centuries. They live off what the land and sea provide to them in terms of livelihood. The opportunities for them are hunting whales and other animals and birds.
So, when you go out there with proposals to do industrial campaigns, it is very important to listen to the indigenous populations and see what their concerns are, so you can work with their concerns and minimize your impact, at the same time providing sustainable benefits to indigenous people.
And, you know, that is a long process. Building relationships takes a long time, especially for people who have been living their lives for centuries in almost the same way.
EarthSky interviews on the new report from the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change – titled The Shared Future – are part of a special series made possible in part by Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge.
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