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Shell faces huge risks and potential rewards with an Arctic adventure

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Shell has been given the green light to drill in the Arctic but as well as the opportunity for huge rewards, the inhospitable region brings huge risks

By Ben Marlow: 18 Aug 2015

In James Cameron’s epic science fiction film Avatar, humans travel to the moon Pandora in search of a highly valuable mineral that will help save the Earth from an energy crisis, and ultimately from extinction.

To extract the mineral, the explorers must destroy the lush tropical rainforest that envelopes Pandora, and ultimately the homes of the native Na’vi people.

It’s a sacrifice Parker Selfridge, the greedy head of The Resources Development Administration is willing to make, but ultimately the humans are defeated and sent packing. The name of the mineral they fail to get their hands on? Unobtainium.

Perhaps Avatar should become compulsory viewing in the training classes at Royal Dutch Shell because it is a sobering reminder of the huge risks, as well as potential financial, environmental and human costs associated with trying to explore in hard-to-reach territories.

The Anglo-Dutch oil giant has just been granted the last permit it needs to drill for possible reserves in the Arctic, Earth’s equivalent of Pandora.

The US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the offshore regulator, has awarded Shell a permit to drill into rocks in the Chukchi Sea off the north-west coast of Alaska.

The licence allows its Polar Pioneer rig to begin drilling down to the ice-cold, murky depths of about 8,000ft below the seabed where black gold is thought to be hiding in vast quantities.

It is a hugely significant event for Shell. The explorer has spent 10 years and $7bn (£4.5bn) on its ambitious plans to unlock the region’s riches. Yet it hasn’t been able to complete a single well during that time and has suffered several big setbacks. The biggest came in 2012 when its Kulluk drilling rig ran aground as it was being towed back to port, forcing it to suspend operations.

The regulator’s decision to aloow further drilling is hugely controversial among environmental campaign groups for obvious reasons – the Arctic is the planet’s last pristine area, 5.5m sq miles of almost untouched wilderness. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are concerned, not unfairly, that it could be tainted by another major ecological disaster along the lines of Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon.

Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden claims the decision to push ahead with exploration was one he took with a heavy heart. The Dutchman went on a “personal journey” before proceeding, he recently told the BBC.

Despite the soul-searching, Shell’s boss has clearly concluded that the potential financial gains outweigh the environmental risks. Like the prospectors of the 1500s who spent decades scouring South America for the fabled lost city of El Dorado, today’s explorers have been lured to the region by the promise of exploiting the world’s last remaining untapped giant oil reserves.

The numbers are eye-watering. The US Geological Survey estimates that as much as a fifth of the world’s undiscovered yet recoverable oil and up to a third of its natural gas reserves lie hidden beneath the ice.

This includes 90bn barrels of oil, more than all the known reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico combined, and enough to supply the world for three years at current consumption rates, or to supply America for 12.

The Burger prospect, where Shell is drilling, is estimated to hold 4.3bn barrels of recoverable oil, though some senior industry sources believe Shell thinks it could extract up to 30bn barrels from neighbouring fields, a figure that would be enormous, surpassing the world’s biggest finds such as Prudhoe Bay and comparable with the Middle East’s largest fields.

Tellingly, few other oil giants have followed Shell to the Arctic but, if its endeavours are successful, the company will trigger a modern day oil rush, the like of which has probably never been seen.

However, it is a massive if. Drilling in the Arctic truly is final frontier stuff. Conditions are so inhospitable that drilling is confined to three months of summer when the waters are ice free and storms less severe.

The nearest coastguard station with equipment for responding to a spill is more than 1,000 miles away and existing clean-up technology, which has been designed for more temperate waters, would struggle to be effective against a spill in slushy seas or where the oil is disappearing under the ice, critics say.

There are huge financial risks too. Some experts calculate that for Shell’s efforts to be viable it would need to uncover 10bn barrels and for oil prices to be above $100 a barrel. Other estimates are less conservative but $70 is about as low as anyone thinks it can go before the cost of production is no longer being met.

For the foreseeable future that looks like a huge challenge. Prices are currently hovering just below $50 a barrel and the International Energy Agency believes a supply “glut” will keep prices suppressed for years; OPEC thinks they won’t rebound for at least a decade. Shell rightly points out that it will take at least that long for the company to get anything out of the seabed, perhaps until the 2030s.

Time may be on Shell’s side but it also allows plenty of opportunity for mishaps, with some experts warning that Arctic drilling is so dangerous that it is easy to imagine disaster striking on a grander scale than BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill, which has so far cost the company more than $50bn.

Could the Arctic prove to be van Beurden’s real-life Pandora?

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