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Drilling and Nuclear Power in the Arctic

In the farthest regions of the north, the Russians have already drilled, but the Americans are coming. Shell makes preparation to drill. So it is, the most distant Northern Hemisphere will never be the same.

Not only that, but astonishingly, Russia is doubling down on its risky energy play with grandiose plans to power Arctic drill rigs with floating nuclear reactors. Indeed, the oil thirsty Russians plan to mass-produce floating nuclear reactors once their original model proves itself. Imagine that, an Arctic Sea filled with floating nuclear reactors used to power oil exploration drill rigs. Well now, what to say, other than speechlessness is always an antidote to shock and awe!

Thanks to excessive levels (400 ppm) of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) from burning fossil fuels and the resultant global warming (2014 the hottest on record) and consequent Arctic ice meltdown (Sept. minimal ice mass of 20,000 km³ down to 7,000 km³ over four decades), oil & gas companies gain access to drilling the world’s second-to-last fossil fuel frontier. The ironies are mind-blowing, like a trip on acid!

What if there is a mistake?

Meaning, a mistake with the oil drilling, forget about the floating nuclear power plant(s), that’s too much to calculate, too much to contemplate.

“If a blowout were to occur before the winter freeze-up, it could spew oil uncontrollably for 7 or 8 months. The oil would bind with the newly formed ice, be carried far and wide by ocean currents, and released into new environments the following spring,” according to David Barber, scientist with a Canadian research group at University of Manitoba (source: Ed Struzik, Oil and Arctic Ocean Make A Highly Troublesome Mix, Environment360, Yale University, June 8, 2015).

At the end of the day, searching for oil in the Arctic may prove to be the culmination of human insanity, the alpha and omega. Yes, there are proven workable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Already, a “ghost barge” with 950 gallons of fuel on board is aimlessly drifting throughout the Arctic for months. It broke free from a tugboat in the Beaufort Sea last October, and because of inclement weather, the tug captain determined it was too dangerous to try to retrieve the barge due to turbulent seas.

Satellite reconnaissance shows the “ghost barge” at about 40 miles off Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Meanwhile, Russian attempts to find the barge are constrained by bad weather. Uh-oh, bad weather restrains remedial efforts!

A wandering ghost barge, 8 months later, still at large.

Without Warning and Suddenly, this is how accidents happen. Nobody ever schedules an accident. They just happen. The “ghost barge” was not planned as an accident.

Imagine a major Arctic oil spill, an accident. There are no roads, no ports, no airplanes, and very few icebreakers. Consider the consequences in the context of the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. The Deepwater Horizon required 7,000 vessels 125 aircraft, and 47,000 people deployed from easy access of ports and easy access land bases all along the coast of the Gulf. And, it’s still a problem to this day.

After numerous failed efforts, the Deepwater Horizon’s massive out of control blow out was finally stemmed/sealed on September 19, 2010, but unofficial reports indicate it continued(s) to leak. That accident took all of five months to seal. Now, superimpose Arctic conditions onto the Deepwater Incident, and in all likelihood, it is an un-mitigated disaster for years to come, maybe uncontrollable forever.

There is no easy access to the Arctic… period!

The wayward “ghost barge” in the Arctic is first-hand evidence of potentially nightmarish consequences by a major oil spill. Even a lowly barge is still at large after eight months! What of a Deepwater Horizon-type blowout?

Moreover, “cleaning up the Arctic” is as oxymoronic as “containing Fukushima.”

For a real time example of the risks associated with oil drilling/production, look to California. If Santa Barbara can’t prevent oil spills, what’s to be expected in the Arctic?

In fact, Santa Barbara is affirmation of how haphazardly accidents happen even when painstaking techniques for prevention are carefully calculated. It was 1969 when the disastrous Santa Barbara Oil Spill hit the California coastline hard, the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time. Subsequently, careful measures have been instituted to prevent a repeat spill.

May 19th, 2015 a pipeline along the Santa Barbara coast burst, polluting miles of beaches and killing unmeasurable numbers of sea animals.

The Santa Barbara example goes to the heart of the risks of drilling/producing oil. The Santa Barbara pipeline operator, Plains All American Pipeline, took extraordinarily careful measures to prevent such an accident. In fact, in nearly 1,200 pages of records filed with state regulators, the company detailed a range of defenses established to guard against crude oil spills. According to the company’s analysis, as submitted to state regulators: “The pipeline and its operations are state-of-the-art.”

But, the spill still happened at the same location where America experienced its worst-ever oil spill in U.S. waters 25 years ago. Without question, the horrendous ’69 Santa Barbara oil spill brought forth state-of-the-art checks and balances to prevent a repeat. But, it repeated.

Then, what of the Arctic where weather conditions make Santa Barbara look like a walk in the park, like a quickie trip thru Disneyland with the kids?

The point to be made is that even in the face of the most stringent precautionary measures, accidents still happen, even within the most tranquil of environments.

The Arctic is one of the planet’s most volatile, unpredictable, harsh settings. It is almost guaranteed that an oil spill will occur. The odds are likely way more than 50/50. Already, at the onset, Shell had to abandon its 2012 drilling campaign with two drill rigs damaged. The company planned to drill 10 wells in 2012.

“Shell has had numerous serious problems in getting to and from the Arctic, as well as problems operating in the Arctic,” says Lois N. Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society and a member of an Interior Department safety panel (source: John M. Broder, With 2 Ships Damaged, Shell Suspends Arctic Drilling, The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2013).

In September 2012, in an initial test in Puget Sound of Shell’s Arctic oil spill containment system, it “crushed like an aluminum beer can.”

In December 2012, the Kulluk drill rig broke loose from towlines 5 times in a heavy storm and ran aground. The Kulluk drill rig sustained damage to its hull and seawater damaged the electrical system.

The Noble Discoverer drill rig dragged its anchor and nearly ran aground, later damaged by an explosion and fire while in port.

How much experience does humankind have in successfully operating huge offshore drill rigs in the fierce, unpredictable waters of the Arctic? Well…

Nevertheless, throwing caution to the wind, the Obama administration gave conditional approval May 2015 to Shell Gulf of Mexico to start drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Approval granted, even though the development of cold-adapted bioremediation technologies are still in the infancy. Furthermore, a report by the U.S. National Research Council in 2014 highlighted serious shortcomings to Shell’s response capabilities and to those of U.S. agencies.

By all appearances, the U.S. is rushing headlong to make oil discoveries in the Arctic now that Russia has already set a higher bar. Similar to the nuclear arms race, 1949-Present, the United States and Russia are once again at each other’s throats, although this time the odds have increased a lot, really a lot, that they’ll actually set something off, resulting in massive incomprehensible physical destruction!

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at roberthunziker@icloud.com

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Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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