Robert Headland: It's not totally safe, it's not inevitably a disaster – the truth lies in between

Share
Related Topics

A lot of people are economical with the truth when they talk about the consequences of drilling for oil.

The industrial lobby all but ignores the possible downside for natural habitats; the environmental lobby is liable to imply that every project could precipitate a crisis. The truth, inevitably, is somewhere in between.

The first and most important thing to note when assessing the wisdom of this particular decision is the difference between exploration and exploitation. It's simple enough: exploration is the process of checking if a site is worth drilling; exploitation is the extraction of the oil. But the distinction is crucial.

The environmental risks of the exploration stage are minimal: the work is on a much smaller scale than it would be if the sites were to prove useful, and hence much less likely to lead to any kind of spill. These are the kinds of wells that Shell is proposing to drill, at least initially. So it is perhaps a little early to talk of a crisis for the habitat.

Meanwhile, the prospects of exploitation proceeding cleanly and straightforwardly are improving as the relevant technology does. It is possible that these risks will have receded further by the time Shell comes to the exploitation stage.

In the end, though, exploitation is the aim. What will be the risks if that does come about? Well, there are big problems with carrying out a cleanup in the region. The extreme low temperatures, strong winds, high seas and vast seasonal variations off the coast of Alaska would make it very difficult. While some of the region's species have a tremendous capacity to recover, the cleanup process would be very slow. With very little experimentation done on the subject, it might be argued that you should err on the side of caution.

And yet, at the same time, the mythology of the area is sometimes overblown. The protected Arctic Refuge, for instance, is set aside as a kind of idealised natural habitat. But already there is human activity there: the indigenous people, hunters and trappers, whalers and sealers, traders and even military personnel. The word pristine should be used with great caution. As extraordinary as the region is, it is far from untouched by humanity.

The author is a senior associate of Cambridge University's Scott Polar Research Institute

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower