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Why North America’s Arctic Oil Needs to Stay in the Ground

Canada and the U.S need to leave some oil in the ground if they’re serious about fighting climate change, and the obvious place to start is the Arctic, where operating costs and environmental risks are huge, says Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Michael in the northwest passage
Michael Byers in the Northwest Passage. Photo courtesy Michael Byers

It’s easiest to ban something at a time when it’s not being used. By that measure, plans by the United States and Canada to forbid offshore drilling in the vast majority of their Arctic waters is well-timed: Low oil prices and rising concerns about the cost of doing business in remote, icy waters have put exploration and development efforts on pause across the North American Arctic.

That’s one takeaway from Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia who holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law. His work often focuses on issues of Arctic sovereignty and climate change, and he’s the author of the 2010 book, “Who Owns the Arctic?” We caught up with him to talk about this week’s big joint announcement by the United States and Canada, which he views as an important effort to curb the impact of climate change.

Arctic Deeply: When you heard the news, what was going through your mind?

Michael Byers: I was really pleased to see the announcement. It makes a lot of sense to me, for several reasons.

First and foremost, in terms of climate change, governments have to decide to leave some oil in the ground. And this is a decision to do that. So from a pure climate change perspective, based upon my knowledge of the peer-reviewed science, this kind of decision is necessary.

There are reasons why the Arctic would be an obvious first choice to leave oil in the ground. There are the enormous risks of oil spills in remote and often icy waters. It would be virtually impossible to clean up a major oil spill in the Arctic, given the remoteness, the lack of coastal infrastructure, the very sparse population and the fact the drilling season is so very short, with sea ice and darkness coming back in October and November. It’s a high-risk place from an environmental perspective to drill for oil.

Add to that how the single biggest contribution to climate change after carbon monoxide is black carbon – is soot. Any oil and gas activity in the Arctic is going to be producing black carbon from the ships and generators, therefore contributing disproportionately to climate change. That’s another reason why Arctic oil is a bad idea from a climate change perspective.

Arctic Deeply: What are the politics behind the decision?

Byers: In terms of both the president and prime minister, they have unquestioned jurisdiction here. The Canadian Arctic offshore is exclusively federal jurisdiction, so Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t need to negotiate with any territorial or provincial government over this. It’s low-hanging fruit from a political perspective. And add the convenient fact that there is no oil and gas activity taking place in the Canadian Arctic offshore. So it’s a moratorium that stops nothing except the possibility of future activity.

There are a couple leases open in the Beaufort Sea, but those will expire soon, and the companies involved have shown no interest in developing during the current lifespan of those leases. In fact, they’ve asked for extensions, which has essentially been turned down by this announcement. And under current prices they can’t justify any drilling.

Arctic oil is really expensive, particularly in the North American Arctic because of the lack of infrastructure and enormous distances. Think of Shell and their campaign in the Chukchi Sea – they were operating out of the port of Seattle, because that was the nearest port that could support a major oil-drilling campaign. And they have to go all the way around Alaska through the Bering Strait. So enormous distances, lack of coastal infrastructure, the North American Arctic still has the worst sea ice in entire Arctic – there are all kinds of reasons why these companies won’t want to drill in the foreseeable future.

Arctic Deeply: Is Arctic oil and gas overhyped?

Byers: Absolutely, it’s overhyped. And the clearest example of it is the fact that the majority of media reports over the last eight years have misreported what the U.S. Geological Survey said back in 2008, with regards to their estimates of oil and gas located in the Arctic. The crucial thing is these were undiscovered reserves. They are estimates of something that’s not known, based on very limited seismic blasting. Very little geology has been done in the Arctic Ocean. So they were estimates based on guesstimates. And they concerned the world’s remaining undiscovered reserves – there are huge, already discovered reserves that have not yet been exploited. The reason why the Arctic has a large portion of the undiscovered reserves is precisely because it’s so expensive to get there and do anything. So these numbers by the U.S. Geological Survey were blown out of proportion by the vast majority of journalists, who didn’t actually read what the geological survey wrote.

Arctic Deeply: If Arctic oil is untenable in the first place, do we need governments to ban it?

Byers: Well first, Arctic oil and gas in the Norwegian Arctic and the western Russian Arctic is tenable because of the absence of sea ice and the effects of the Gulf Stream. So there are different Arctics. People confuse that – they think the Norwegians and Russians are developing Arctic oil, why isn’t Canada, why isn’t the United States? It’s different conditions.

The second thing is that the best time to adopt a moratorium is when no activity is taking place. And it’s foreseeable that if oil prices were to rise in the future, oil companies would show renewed interest in the North American Arctic. Or if a future government wanted to subsidize North American oil and gas development, as indeed the Canadian government did in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then it’s foreseeable that future activity could take place. But what the prime minister and president are doing is closing off that possibility, for primarily, I believe, environmental reasons. Again, they know they need to leave some oil in the ground somewhere, and this is the easiest, most obvious place to do it.

Arctic Deeply: Any other thoughts?

Byers: I fail to see how [Canada] can have an indefinite ban that’s subject to review every five years. I thought the language was unfortunate. It’s unfortunate they felt they needed to leave themselves some wiggle room, but at least we have a five-year ban.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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