President Obama is days away from championing his climate change agenda during a landmark visit to Alaska, a region he’s called “the front lines” of climate change. But on Monday his administration seemed to move in a starkly different direction, giving Shell permission to drill for actual oil beneath the Arctic Ocean — a move that activists and many scientists say will only hasten the region’s slow burn.
A newly modified permit, issued by an obscure division of the Interior Department, gives the company a chance to drill a well before the mandatory end of its drilling season on September 28. It’s a major milestone, which has taken more than 10 years and $7 billion to achieve.
But Shell’s prospects for success in the area are still far from assured.
First, there’s no guarantee the company will even find oil. The area holds the equivalent of 29 billion barrels of oil and gas, according to federal estimates. Shell’s own geologists presumably agree or believe the reserve might be even vaster. But until the Polar Pioneer rig actually spins a drill bit into the area, there’s no telling for certain what’s a mile below the seabed.
The company might find nothing. That’s what happened to Cairn Energy after a high profile play off the coast of Greenland in 2011. It might also find gas instead of oil. Gas isn’t a viable play that far from shore, as the Guardian recently reported, and Shell has said it’s prepared to cut its losses if either scenario arises.
More likely, of course, they will find oil and they’ll start the work of bringing it to market. But that could take 10 years, Shell tells msnbc, and there’s no telling what the price of oil will be in 10 years. Maybe it will be $100 a barrel, and Shell will make a killing. Maybe it will $50 a barrel, like it is now, and Shell will almost certainly lose money, analysts say.
Secondly, Shell may face increasingly hostile, and costly, opposition. Last month dozens of activists with Greenpeace and Rising Tide, among other organizations, blockaded the mouth of Portland’s Willamette River. They dangled from a bridge and swarmed the waters. And the effort worked: They actually delayed by a day Shell’s launch of a ship it needed to begin advanced drilling.
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Many of those activists were arrested, and they now face fines of up to $25,000. But efforts to stop Shell are only going to intensify, Greenpeace and Rising Tide tell msnbc. “We have to run out the clock,” Greenpeace told its followers in a statement released Monday afternoon, referring to Shell’s short window for drilling.
Rising Tide, meanwhile, will launch a "flood the system" campaign on September 1. It calls on activists to "blockade, occupy and shut down the systems that jeopardize our future,” with Shell Oil company considered a major node in those systems.
These groups and many others believe this is genuinely a matter of planetary life and death. There’s even an emerging science to support that notion. A research letter published in the journal Nature earlier this year has become an activist favorite.
To avert some of the worst outcomes of climate change, the researchers concluded “all Arctic resources should be considered as unburnable.” Bill Mckibben of 350.org has been making that point for years.
Finally, and most importantly, Shell should expect a rising level of political opposition as well. The Obama administration has been very nice about the Arctic. But it’s more than little bit awkward for the president to support drilling there even as he becomes the first sitting president to visit the Arctic.
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“I’m going because Alaskans are on the front lines of one of the greatest challenges we face this century — climate change,” Obama said in a video posted on the White House website. “What’s happening in Alaska isn’t just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don’t take action, it’s our wake-up call. The alarm bells are ringing.”
Hillary Clinton seems to be hearing those bells. The Democratic presidential candidate hinted last month, that — if elected — she might reverse the Obama administration’s decision to allow drilling. “I have doubts about whether we should continue drilling in the Arctic,” she said, “and I don’t think it is a necessary part of our overall clean energy climate change agenda.”
No matter what the company finds with its new permit, that kind of talk could end Shell's Arctic odyssey for good.