Hong Kong Customs displays 82.5kg of rhino horns from South Africa and destined for Malaysia. Photo: ISD

Shell’s Conditional Approval to Drill in the Arctic Threatens Beluga Whales

On Monday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) gave conditional approval of Shell’s revised multi-year exploration plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska’s Arctic, a decision which endangers Arctic marine mammals like the beluga whale. By Shell’s own calculations, its two drilling rigs and large fleet of support vessels will expose 12 species of marine mammals to disruptive levels of noise, including at least 974 belugas from the resident Chukchi and migratory Beaufort Sea populations. While noise pollution from oil exploration is a major disruptive threat to sensitive beluga whales, the looming threat of an oil spill would be disastrous.

Belugas hunt and communicate with high pitched vocalizations. While the Arctic is one of the last marine environments that is relatively free of manmade noise, Shell’s exploratory drilling will change that. Vessel traffic from Shell’s fleet of 32 ships will disrupt normal beluga behavior and is likely to send them fleeing away from the source; it may take days for the whales to resume normal activities. Several studies in the Canadian Arctic found that belugas flee from icebreaker vessels that at up to 35-50 km away, and send out alarm vocalizations at distances of up to 80 km from the source. Companies searching for oil also use seismic airguns, which typically produce blasts of underwater sound comparable to a jet engine every ten seconds. At long range, this is disruptive to, and stressful for, belugas. At close range it could be physically harmful to the whales.

Shell’s plan also compounds the impacts belugas in the Chukchi and Beaufort already face from nearshore development and oil exploration. The Canadian region of the Beaufort Sea, including the Mackenzie Delta, is home to an estimated 25 percent of Canada’s undiscovered oil. In 2005, Devon Energy drilled the first offshore well in the Canadian Beaufort Sea since 1989, and more may follow. In the Chukchi Sea, vessel traffic from the Red Dog Iron Mine has already caused the beluga population to alter their seasonal migratory route.

Aside from the stress of noise, drilling in the Arctic runs the risk of an oil spill. Any attempt at cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic would face challenges ranging from shifting sea ice to constant darkness, and the United States is far from ready for an Arctic spill of any significant size. Should an accident occur while drilling any one of the six approved exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, the closest Coast Guard station is more than one thousand miles south of the site. Characterizing the Coast Guard’s ability to respond even in a search and rescue capacity, Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp said in 2011 that “we wouldn’t be able to make it in six days…it’d probably take us six weeks to get adequate resources up.”

Shell has already demonstrated that it is not capable of operating safely in the Arctic. The company’s previous attempt to drill in the Arctic in 2012 was rife with mishaps, culminating in the grounding of the drilling rig Kulluk. Already in April of this year, Shell’s drilling rig, the M/V Noble Discoverer, failed a Coast Guard inspection for its pollution controls. The same operator also pleaded guilty to eight felony offenses in connection to pollution and falsification of records during the failed 2012 drilling season, and agreed to pay $12.2 million in fines. Clearly, Shell and its contractors have continued to approach drilling in the Arctic with a cavalier attitude.

By approving Shell’s drilling plan, BOEM has placed the desires of the oil industry ahead of the regions unique and already-threatened wildlife like the beluga. Beyond its immediate impacts on the marine environment, drilling in the Arctic undermines the White House’s efforts to combat climate change. To avoid catastrophic warming, the Arctic’s offshore oil and natural gas must remain where it is. EIA is disappointed in the administration’s support of offshore oil exploration, and is concerned for the immediate and long-term consequences for belugas and other wildlife in the region.