BELLINGHAM - As global climate change melts away ancient ice that once blocked navigation on the Arctic Ocean, humans are streaming northward to exploit oil and gas deposits, shorten shipping routes, and boost tourism.
But if anything goes wrong, help is far away.
That was one of the underlying messages at a Wednesday, May 28, session of Bellingham City Club. The speakers were retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Jeffrey Garrett, former commander of two polar icebreakers, and Michael Byers, professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.
"The Arctic is a large, remote and dangerous place, and yet there are all kinds of things that are pulling human activity north," Byers said.
That is especially true for oil and gas. Shell Oil has acquired oil and gas leases in offshore Alaska, although its plans to launch a drilling program are on hold for 2014 after numerous setbacks - including troubles with the Arctic Challenger oil spill containment barge built in Bellingham.
Canada and Norway also are interested in the oil and gas in their Arctic territories, and Russia's offshore drilling plans may be the most aggressive.
Asked if technology and equipment are available to handle a large oil spill in the North American Arctic, Garrett had a quick answer: No.
When BP's Deepwater Horizon well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, large numbers of workers and cleanup equipment were relatively close at hand, and warmer waters encouraged bacterial breakdown of the crude oil that erupted, Garrett said. In the Arctic, none of that would be true.
State Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, asked the two where the nearest oil spill equipment for potential Arctic use is located.
For the U.S., Garrett said, that would be Prince William Sound, Valdez and Cook Inlet, on the other side of Alaska.
On the Canadian Arctic shoreline, boom equipment is stashed at several locations to manage very small-scale oil leaks from ship engine rooms, Byers said. But that equipment would be inadequate to contain the bunker fuel from a conventional freighter's fuel tank, much less an oil tanker or well blowout.
Even if oil spill response capabilities are ramped up before major oil drilling begins, response may never be equal to a major disaster.
"There are no people," Byers said. "There are no ports."
Because spill response in remote Arctic waters likely will be limited, Byers said drilling regulations need to be stringent. Among other things, Byers said governments need to require drilling companies to be ready to drill relief wells to relieve the pressure on a blown-out well, and to have the capability to do that quickly. Without that capability, an Arctic well blowout could belch crude oil for many months, Byers said.
Even with stringent safety precautions, Byers questioned whether the supply of oil in the Arctic is worth the risk. He contended that Arctic oil reserves would extend the global supply by no more than a couple of years.
"My own view is that we should get on with the transition to alternate sources of energy," Byers said.
Garrett, the retired rear admiral, noted that Sir John Franklin's 1845 attempt to get two British sailing ships through the Arctic Northwest Passage ended in disaster: Franklin and his 128 men died after their ships became trapped in the ice.
Today, much of the Arctic is ice-free for many months of the year, and some shipping companies are already sending freighters along the Russian coast as a shortcut between Europe and Japan or Korea, Garrett said.
Tourist cruise ships also are venturing into the Arctic in growing numbers. For about $25,000, you can get a berth on a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker and cruise all the way to the North Pole, Garrett said, adding that many tourists may not realize the risks they are taking. If an Arctic cruise ship gets into trouble, help may not arrive as quickly as it would in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.
"With all the increases in tourism, there's not much of a safety net," Garrett said.