Off-shore Drilling for Fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic Region

  EJ News Network   2020-08-14 01:00:10 Perspectives

The views presented in this perspective are purely Earth Justice team’s views. 


Arctic is melting quickly due to climate changes and rising global temperature, thereby opening up new frontiers to oil and gas development. The bordering nations are preparing to tap vast energy resources held beneath the ice cover. 

The bordering nations US, Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland) are preparing to tap vast energy resources held  beneath the world’s most shallow ocean.

About 22% of the world’s undiscovered fuel lays below Arctic white cover.

Arctic inhabits a diverse array of marine life and is a home to many species unique to Arctic. The scientific understanding of these ecosystems is not completely understood yet and the damage to the aquatic life due to drilling, spills and any other incidental damages may be completely irreversible.


Numerous legal precedents have been established since 1945 to control offshore oil drilling.


Proclamation 2667  “the Government of theUnited States regards the natural resources of the subsoil and sea bed of the continental shelf beneath thehigh seas but contiguous to the coasts of the United States as appertaining to the United States, subject to its jurisdiction and control.”

Other nations also followed the suit proclaiming rights to the waters adjacent to their shores.


 Submerged Lands Act (SLA) granted exclusive rights of coastal states to the waters extending three miles from their shores, thereby givig these states the privilege to exploit the mineral resources in the sea bed.

 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) of 1953 extended the control of the mineral resources beyond the three-mile limit. OCSLA also granted the Department of the Interior the responsibility for administering the exploration and exploitation of natural resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS) through five-year lease plans to the highest qualified responsible bidder according to sealed bids.

United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides the international legal context for individual nations to claim sovereign control over their coastal waters. According to Article 57 of UNCLOS, nations have control over their 

exclusive economic zones (EEZs),extending 200 miles from their shores.

 Under Article 56, coastal states have “sovereign rights for the purposesof exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources,” within their EEZs.


 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

On January 28, 1969, an oil well blowout occurred o the coast of Santa Barbara, California, spilling approximately three million gallons of oil into the ocean, much of it washing ashore.


The scene galvanized the nascent environmental movement, contributing to a wave of environmental legislation in the subsequent years. One law, in particular, is relevant to oshore oil development. The National Environmental Policy Act was passed on January 1, 1970, requiring federal agencies to consider the environmental eects of major government actions, as well as the impacts of alternatives to them.


 Specifically, NEPA requires major government actions undergo environmental impact statements (EISs) to assess the environmental eects of such decisions. Under this law, the five-year plans implemented by the Secretary of Interior under OCSLA are subject to EISs.


Oil Pollution Act (OPA)

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez  oil tanker collided with Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound and spilled more than 11 million gallons of oil into the surrounding waters.


The heavy crude fouled the shoreline and endangered countless birds, whales, porpoises, sea otters and fish. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. history at that point, and it shocked the nation.

In response, Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was passed holding the owner responsible for all the damages due to oil spills unless proven “grossly negligent”


 Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 authorized the Secretary of the Interior, and specifically the Fish and Wildlife Service, to make the determination if certain species qualify as “endangered” or “threatened.”


Once the determination is made, any unauthorized “taking, possession, or sale” of the species is prohibited. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can levy fines upon violators. Also, ESA requires federal agencies to insure that any action funded or carried out by them does not jeopardize the continued existence of an endangered species or its habitat.


Remembering Deep Water Horizon Blowout


In 2010, the Macondo well controlled by BP and Transocean, experienced a blowout suffered multiple blowouts and causality of 13 workers and ultimately sinking in a fiery blaze after two days. This was the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history.


The gusher of oil continued for 87 days, with an estimated total of 4.9 million barrels of oil dumped into the ocean before the well was finally sealed. The primary cause of the failure was along the multiple steps in the drilling process culminating in the eventual blowout.


Risks to the Environment


Environmental Sensitivity and Risks to Marine Ecosystems Oil drilling in the marine environment has been shown to have deleterious effects on the marine environment.


Evidence suggests that noise from seismic surveys conducted during oil exploration damage acoustic animals such as whales, which can ultimately lead to fatalities if within close proximity.


Additionally, the impacts of hydrocarbon releases in the marine environment have been shown to cause detrimental impacts on reproductive health, immunological and neurological functioning, as well as higher incidences of mortality for marine wildlife.


Contaminants from oil and gas drilling are also believed to travel higher up on the food chain, ultimately having cascading effects for marine ecosystems.


Shell’s 2012 exploration plans include drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, a critical habitat for bowhead whales.


 An estimated 523 dolphins were reported stranded in the oil spill area, 95% of which were dead.46 These strandings are four times the historic average. The Gulf of Mexico is also the spawning grounds of the Bluefin Tuna, and contact with oil may have reduced juvenile Bluefin Tuna by as much as 20%.


There are numerous such examples of the damage that can be done due to an oil discharge.


Lack of Science on Arctic Ecosystems Ultimately, the effects of a very large oil spill on the marine environment in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are unknown.


The Legislative amendments and transparent and inclusive planning and decision-making is the necessity before disturbing the Arctic ecosystem.  


Inherent Risk of Deepwater Drilling Offshore oil drilling is a highly complex and technologically advanced industrial activity.


Chevron Corp. , Shell, BP have been paying heavy penalties and facing litigations for such accidents. 

You may like

Leave a Comment: