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Moment that mattered: Shell gains conditional approval to drill for oil in the Arctic

This aerial photo shows the Shell floating drill rig Kulluk in Kodiak Island, Alaska's Kiliuda Bay on Monday afternoon, Jan. 7, 2013, as salvage teams conduct an in-depth assessment of its seaworthiness. The Kulluk, which ran aground a week ago on Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, was taken to Kiliuda Bay for repairs and a survey. (AP Photo/Kodiak Daily Mirror, James Brooks)

“The majority of Alaskans are pleased at the US decision to conditionally allow Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic, major environmental organisations are opposed to it and almost no one knows enough about the issue.

I think the federal government looked at both sides and came to a middle point where it had mandated enough environmental protection to go ahead. And you have to bear in mind that this is only a test: Shell has only been licensed for exploration and it will have to prove that it will provide the necessary protection before any production begins, which might take
two decades.

During the review process, many environmentalists pointed to the risk of an Alaskan Deepwater Horizon-style disaster [the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill], but there are some important differences. The Deepwater Horizon blowout took place at 5,000 feet deep with a very high-pressure reservoir. The area that Shell is looking at is not deep and not high-pressure. On the other hand, there is less microbiological activity in cold water that could ‘eat’ an oil spill to dissipate its effects. A much more detailed analysis will be required to decide yes or no on production – or what conditions to apply. It’s a complicated place up there.

The image that the ‘Lower 48’ (the name given by Alaskans to the 48 contiguous continental states of the US) have of Alaska is of the gold rush and Sarah Palin, it’s not based on real experience. The US has an Arctic policy, but I don’t think we really have a clarity of view about what the Arctic actually is yet. That’s partly because Alaska’s Arctic coast has no rivers and no ports to sustain maritime activity. You have to go south of the Bering Strait before you get to a place where there’s a deepwater port, so you aren’t going to have a lot of development up in the US Arctic, except when it comes to resources or maybe a facility
for tourism.

In comparison, the Arctic is an integral part of the Russian identity. Culturally it represents what the West represented to the
US in the last century: it’s the frontier, the area of deep history. Under Stalin, Russia developed the Northern Sea Route and, because the Russians had their bases up there, they had to move a lot of cargo across the North. They have the experience of several generations of conquering and fighting the climate of the Arctic. In contrast, it was only when the Russians submitted a claim to an extended continental shelf to the UN in 2001 – and later physically planted a flag on the ocean floor – that the Alaskan Arctic really became visible to the rest of the United States.

“The US has an Arctic policy, but I don’t think we really have a clarity of view about what the Arctic actually is yet”

The area that Shell wants to drill in is within the US exclusive economic zone. There’s no question that it falls under US jurisdiction and that it is subject to US environmental regulations. But at some point the United States will also claim an extended shelf on its side of the boundary with Russia. Hopefully, it will do that after joining the UN’s convention on the law of the sea and will run through the same process as Russia.

So far, the big story for me is that the Arctic is a place where the rule of law is king. Countries are working through the proper processes in their claims, but that gets little attention. Newspapers come out with headlines such as ‘Land grab’ and ‘Putin takes the Arctic’ because people react to that. If you say ‘Everything’s going smoothly in the Arctic,’ most people stop reading.

For a while it was difficult for US officials to talk to Russian officials because of what was going on in Ukraine or Georgia, or whatever the current issue was, which was very destructive. There are many cases where it is in both countries’ interests to cooperate in the Arctic. Both want to begin to develop their own resources, to protect the resources beyond national jurisdiction, and to do the science to understand the whole region better.

And when it comes to Shell, you never know – it might turn out that Russian Arctic assets are able to get to the company’s drilling site faster than additional American ships if something does go wrong. Co-operation is going to be key.”

Caitlyn Antrim teaches the law of the sea at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington DC

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