The efforts of six U.S. Senate Democrats to delay oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic Ocean until more research is carried out could have an opposite and unintended effect: experts agree that one effective way to learn about conditions beneath the frigid waters off the north coast of Alaska is to drill exploratory wells.
Drilling in the Arctic was expected to start this year but a series of problems with weather conditions and regulatory hurdles had Shell Oil throwing in the towel for anything but preparatory work this year. If the Department of the Interior (DOI) allows it, Shell could start actual drilling next year.
Shell's troubles prompted Democratic senators, including Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, to write to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Sept. 21 urging him to remove all Arctic plans from the department's five-year leasing plan.
"We strongly encourage DOI not to include Arctic lease sales until there is a thorough examination of the scientific, economic, and social factors that could be affected by expanded drilling, and a comprehensive review is made of how oil and gas activities will be conducted without harming the Arctic ecosystem ...," wrote Durbin and Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Barbara Boxer of California, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
DOI spokesman Blake Androff said that the agency is being "cautious" but "forward-looking" about the Arctic in its five-year program, but he made no indication that Interior would reconsider those leases.
Shell's plans fit with DOI's offshore drilling strategy released in 2010, which highlighted exploration as a pathway to knowledge. "If we are to responsibly develop resources in frontier areas, we must expand exploration activities, gather the science needed, and listen to affected communities," Salazar said at the time.
The director of DOI's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Tommy Beaudreau, reiterated that mission in an interview with National Journal last year. "All of the data seems to indicate that there's tremendous resource potential in the Chukchi, but you never know until you drill," he said.