Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Under Melting Ice, a Jackpot

| March 22, 2012

Northern Alaska is booming as oil companies gear up to tap a goldmine

BARROW, Alaska — AT MIDNIGHT, in the northernmost location in the United States, this town packed in ice seems unwelcoming. It is silent and cold. Frozen whale bones line the road. There is no connectivity to the outside world. In order to ward off polar bears, mace spray hangs from the door of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) facility.

The DEWline, a "man camp" because that is who is there, is primarily used to monitor the Russians, but also sleeps visitors looking for a place to stay. Nearly 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, there are no vacancies for the foreseeable future. It may be minus 35 degrees this Tuesday, but Barrow is hot.

This 3,500-person Alaskan town is changing. It has become a magnet for explorers and environmentalists, businessmen and rescuers, scientists and engineers, all of whom are coming here because the Arctic is melting and there is oil in the once-frozen ocean.

The United States Geological Service estimates there are about 25 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic; it could net a federal tax haul of $200 billion. Isolated Barrow, a place that has no road access in or out, will serve as the primary land location for all exploration activity. It is ground zero at the top of the world.

In February, Shell Oil received approval from the Department of Interior to begin preliminary offshore oil exploration. While some licenses and court actions are still pending, Shell has satisfied the government's major oil spill response concerns. It is now moving two oil rigs north through the Bering Strait.

The rig Discoverer, or Disco, passed by Hawaii on Monday and is en route to Alaska; it will sit in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea. The rig Kulluk will drill 400 miles to the east, in the ocean's Beaufort Sea. Shell hopes to find oil and build a route to the Trans-Alaska pipeline, which will carry the liquid gold to the mainland. Conoco Phillips and Statoil are also awaiting permits.

And so they come here. Alaska Airlines changed the aircraft from Anchorage, replacing a small commuter plane with a 120-seater. Pepe's, the local Mexican restaurant, expanded its menu and is anticipating a busy summer. Shell will have from July 1 to Oct. 31 to get the rigs in, test the sea beds, and then get out before the Arctic freezes over again. So new infrastructure and camps are being built quickly to accommodate more men, from rig workers to Coast Guard personnel.

Assuming Shell finds oil this summer, it will be the polar version of the California gold rush. More people means more permanent housing, a bigger police presence, a new runway at the already stretched airport where two guys still throw luggage from the cargo bay into the airport lobby, an expanded Coast Guard facility, greater fiber-optic capacity. And maybe, hopefully, a road to somewhere, perhaps Fairbanks.

While local leadership, mostly Native Alaskans, will admit that money and upgrades are in the offing, they are also worried about overwhelming a community that knows only whaling. The whales have been their prey, and drilling may steer the animals away. Greenpeace wants to protect whales for entirely different reasons, and is planning protests and will try to disrupt the rigs as they travel north.

And then there is the oil itself. Geologists here explain that cold oil is thick and "highly viscous," meaning it can be easily captured. But the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident and the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill are still cautionary tales. Shell executives in Anchorage detailed their plans for Arctic capping and containment systems should anything go awry.

They are not messing around, but they don't have many options. Nothing moves fast in the Arctic, so Shell will launch an additional 19 ships that do ice-breaking, as well as response and recovery, to support the two rigs. The Coast Guard is moving a number of helicopters, cutters, and buoy boats as well.

But all movement is slow; you simply cannot surge to Barrow. As Coast Guard Rear Admiral Tom Ostebo, who is responsible for Alaska shores, told me, "The logistics are so hard, that you have to get it right at the front end. So we are moving stuff up now." The drilling is not what worries him the most; it's having so much maritime activity and so many men, maybe a thousand, out in a freezing ocean. Arctic water has a "functional consciousness" rate of about two minutes, meaning anyone who lands in it is in imminent peril.

For this whale-hunting town, the Interior Department approval has launched a chain reaction of events that will make the summer of 2012 historic in Arctic history. Something still could stand in the way, maybe a bad environmental review or a lawsuit. But, as Barrow's temperature rises to minus 15 degrees at lunchtime and the streets fill with residents and the newly arrived, it's hard to see how the momentum will stop.

The people who live here have a saying that is repeated throughout town in these days of anticipation. "The whales give themselves when they wish to be taken."

The same may be true for Barrow itself.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Under Melting Ice, a Jackpot.” The Boston Globe, March 22, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem