Hot spots to fan the flames of oil's critics

Shell's Alaskan incident has raised more fears at the supermajors' move into new territories. Mark Leftly and Tom Bawden report
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Tug boats battled 50 knot Arctic winds and 14-metre-high waves as they attempted to tie tow cables to the Kulluk oil rig. But Mother Nature won, leaving Royal Dutch Shell facing an unpleasant start to the new year when the Kulluk, which was carrying around 140,000 gallons of diesel, ran aground off the southern coast of Alaska near an uninhabited island.

There have been no signs of any oil leaks or environmental damage, while a Shell spokesman argues: "It's important to reflect that this is a maritime transportation incident, not a drilling incident. The core problem was the failure of the vessel towing Kulluk, the Aiviq, during exceptionally poor weather conditions."

Yet the problems have been seized on as another reason why big oil should not go near one Earth's last pristine ecosystems. Greenpeace blasted Shell for "staggering ineptitude" and campaigner Ben Ayliffe argues it is evidence "we're moving closer to a major catastrophe in the Arctic".

Shell has invested $4.5bn (£2.8bn) in Alaska as it seeks the oil needed to keep the world's ever-growing population warm, fed and on the move. Others have followed, though few doubt how difficult it is to drill in the Arctic, which includes territories belonging to Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark.

US oil prices briefly fell below $92 a barrel on Friday, but this was due to fears over the US economy. Prior to 2007, the idea that oil could crash through the $100 barrier and then remain in or around that mark for several years seemed fanciful.

Now, that's the reality. As consumption increases, so the supermajors must check areas they previously wouldn't have ventured to find the vast reservoirs to sate demand and please investors with record profits and huge dividend pay-outs.

One problem is that they are under greater environmental scrutiny than ever before as a result of the BP and Transocean's Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010. But all of the great new territories for oil exploration and production will prove difficult, and not all due to environmental issues.

Here are seven hot prospects – with real challenges ….

Iraq: North vs south

The south has long been the centre of Iraq's oil industry, while to the north the semi-autonomous Kurdistan's vast reserves have been neglected. This situation has changed in recent years, as $10bn of investment from foreign oil companies – including former BP boss Tony Hayward's venture, Genel – in Kurdistan shows.

Big Oil had been put off by a bitter row with Iraq's central government over who owns Kurdish oil. Last April, Kurdistan's regional government suspended oil shipments in protest at Baghdad's delay in disbursing $1.5bn owed to northern operators. Relations have improved, but the political situation is unstable.

Canada: Tar sands and the economy

Canada's oil reserves are the third largest in the world – the only problem is that most of it is in the form of tar sands, a mixture of bitumen, sand, water and clay.

The process of turning tar sands into oil is highly energy intensive, which means production is expensive and widely opposed on environmental grounds.

With the oil price expected to remain somewhere around its current, relatively high, level for some time to come, the Canadian tar sands industry is preparing to ramp up production. But backers are reluctant to finalise investments because they remain worried about the global economy.

The Arctic: Environment and the economy

The Arctic is one of Earth's last unspoilt environments and is home to important species of fish as well as endangered animals such as beluga whales and walruses. Shell is not alone in realising how much oil and gas lies beneath these treacherous waters, with BP and Russian majors among those seeking black gold.

Maria Damanaki, the EU's maritime commissioner, was moved to say "Arctic reserves could hold enough oil and gas to meet global demand for several years – this is a need the world economy has".

The Falklands: National battles

More than three decades after 900 British and Argentinian lives were lost over what the South American country calls the Malvinas, mutterings are again being heard over a potential for new conflict.

Just last week, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner wrote an open letter to David Cameron in an advertisement taken out in several British newspapers including The Independent, demanding that the Falklands be returned to her country.

The difference now is that oil has been found in the North Falklands basin, with commercial production set to start in 2017. At present, most Falkland revenue comes from fishing.

East Africa: Taxation vexation

There were few regions hotter for prospectors in 2012 than East Africa. For years, small UK drillers hunted off the coast as majors turned their noses up when the fields turned out to contain more gas than oil.

However, Asian demand and the huge fields found have resulted in mind-boggling bids for small stakes in these projects, while ENI and Anadarko have teamed up to develop natural gas finds in the waters of Mozambique.

The problem, as Shell found when bidding for Cove Energy, is that governments are prone to changing tax rules to get a bigger share of the loot.

US: Fracking questioned

The US is set to leapfrog Saudi Arabia to become the world's biggest producer of oil by 2017, thanks to the controversial practice of fracking.

The technique, which involves blasting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into shale rock to release hydrocarbons, has traditionally been used to extract gas. But it is increasingly used to produce oil in states such as North Dakota and Texas. However, a recent Opec report said the future of shale production is "likely to be beset by several constraints and challenges, such as environmental concerns, questions over the availability of equipment and skilled labour, rising costs".

West Africa: Political unrest

This side of the continent holds 45 per cent of its proven oil reserves, with major producing countries including Nigeria, Ghana and Angola. Already this year, Ivory Coast officials announced plans to increase production after finds by Tullow Oil and Vanco Cote d'Ivoire.

However, fears remain over the stability of countries only recently ravaged by war and corruption, as they do in North Africa post Arab Spring. The Ivory Coast's civil war claimed 3,000 lives in 2011 and Mali was hit by a coup last year.