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The oil tap opens in the Arctic

The oil tap opens in the Arctic

By Gerardo Honty

The exploitation of reserves in the Arctic Ocean has the potential to release an additional 15.8 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (equivalent to the emissions of all cars in the United States for 13 years) and increase the global CO2 concentrations at 7.44 parts per million [1].

The Executive Secretary of the Climate Change Convention, Christiana Figueres, said she would not comment on the details of the US decision. But generally speaking, she said spending huge sums to extract fossil fuels from remote settings - what she calls "high-cost carbon investments" - is a risky proposition. "There is a growing body of analysis pointing to the fact that we have to keep the vast majority of fossil fuels underground" [2]. And he added: "One has to question the prudence of going ahead with this type of investment" [3].

But for Shell, keeping oil underground is impossible. Ben van Beurden, Shell's chief executive, told the Washington Post that oil and gas will still be needed, even if solar and wind power expand at spectacular rates. "One could say, 'don't worry, everything is going to be supplied by renewable sources' but that's a fantasy. If you look at the most optimistic scenario, 75 percent of that energy demand towards the middle of this century , it comes from fossil sources. "

The Artic

The region is estimated to contain 20% of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas (23.6 billion barrels of oil and 104.41 trillion cubic feet of gas) and the company expects to begin drilling by mid-year.

But the Chukchi Sea is a difficult and dangerous place to drill. The area is extremely remote, hundreds of kilometers from any deep-water city or port, in the middle of a sea with extreme temperatures and 20-foot waves, which makes quick action complex in the event of an accident. The April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, which has already cost more than $ 14 billion in unfinished cleanup efforts, appears to have been no lesson.

And the probability of an accident happening is quite high. According to the US federal office in charge of evaluating the risks of the Shell project, there is a 75% chance of a spill greater than 1000 barrels of oil [4].

Shell's track record is not good in the area. In 2012 the company was forced to evacuate its Kulluk platform after running aground near Sitkalidak Island in Alaska. The same year, the Noble Discoverer - one of the drillships Shell plans to use again now - was held accountable for various crimes and safety and environmental violations that led to it being fined € 8 million [5].

Because right now?

The price of oil has been falling for a year (more than 50% since June last year) and exploitation in hard-to-reach areas such as Alberta's tar sands, deep-water sites in Brazil and offshore wells in the Arctic , it is too expensive. Between March 2013 and March 2014, the 127 most relevant oil companies worldwide had added sales of USD 568 billion (MM) but had spent USD 677 MM. The difference of USD 110 MM was covered by increasing indebtedness (USD 106 MM) and sale of assets (USD 73 MM) in order to ensure dividends to shareholders [6].

In the last 4 years, unconventional oil producing companies in the United States have presented losses of USD 21 million even in times when the average price was USD 95 per barrel of oil [7].

It is a prospect that would seem quite grim for the industry, but Shell has already spent USD 6 billion in the Arctic and is betting on increasing demand and rising prices. Ann Pickard, vice president of the company in the Arctic, has put it this way: "Although the price of oil has plummeted since last August, Shell does not believe that prices will remain low in the long term. Existing fields are falling at an average rate of 5 percent a year so the need for a new supply could be up to five million barrels a day until at least 2030. We have to plan well in advance and the Arctic resources they are fundamental for this planning "[8].

Shell, like all oil companies, is faced with the problem of conventional oil "peak" and the need to open new unconventional frontiers despite the risk that this implies. The production of the 5 largest oil companies in the world (BP, Exxon, Chevron, Shell and Total) has fallen by almost 30% in the last 10 years (today they produce less than 8 Mb / d). [9]

Impact on climate negotiation

The authorization by the United States government to the Shell company to exploit Arctic oil seems irrational. It goes against the government's own climate policy and puts one of its most fragile ecosystems at high risk in an exploitation that a priori is going to cause losses. The assumption that seems to be behind the decision is that the world will continue to increase its oil consumption, at a price of at least double the current price and beyond the certainties of the climate disaster.

This is a sign that will not go unnoticed by the delegates who will meet in two weeks in Bonn to discuss a global climate agreement. This December, a new protocol is expected to be reached within the framework of the United Nations Climate Change Convention, and this intersessional, which will take place from June 1 to 11 in the German city, is key to identifying progress in the negotiations.

Obama's decision takes away credibility (if any remained) to the intentions of the United States government to reach a global and binding agreement that prevents an increase in the global temperature of the planet beyond 2 ° C. If expectations were low, this new scenario seems to bring them to the ground level.

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