Drilling for oil in the arctic

Written by Preethi Anbalagan

Daniella Cheslow

Drilling the Arctic for oil by Daniella Cheslow


The Arctic region harnesses the economic potential of oil and natural gas resources for industries and governments. In recent discovery, it is estimated that 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas exists at Heca and Drake Point on Melville Island (Gorham, 2008). These Arctic seabeds hold as much as a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas (Gorham, 2008). However, as the demand for petroleum resources increases, the social and environmental threats also increase.

Why Arctic Drilling?

We've dried out many of the world's natural oil reserves and continue doing so. This demand for oil can't be sustained if our resources are declining and we continue this rate of consumption.

Currently, for most people the gasoline prices have catapulted into the unattainable side of the scale. The oil drilling in the Arctic is sectioning land that is known to be one of the world's largest oil reserves. As more oil is extracted, the cheaper the prices will be. The societal benefits of producing and selling oil from these regions outweigh the environmental concerns and impacts of the drilling process.

Also, the extraction of petroleum resources from the Arctic is integral to the economic growth of Canada because of emerging demands from international and neighbouring countries. Since the scarcity of oil has been brought to attention, the United States have a surging demand for oil. According to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the United States imports up to 60% of oil from other countries (primarily Canada).

Battle for the Arctic: Drill or Not to Drill

Social & Environmental Impacts

For many years, the Canadian Arctic has been home to the Inuit and neighbouring indigenous peoples. Their outlook, primarily, is for the benefit of the environment and to reduce any of the impact risks. Environmental sustainability is of utmost importance to the residential peoples because they rely heavily on the hunter-gatherer economy. If Arctic drilling is a continued development, it will interfere with their hunting and traditional practises. Aquatic life will experience noise pollution and their spawning cycles will be disrupted if they are forced to relocate.

Also, the extraction techniques release air-borne pollutants that contribute to "Arctic Haze," which is smog made of byproducts of coal/oil combustion and steel manufacturing. This condition essentially prolongs the summer melt season, which inevitably effects ecosystems, fishing/tourism industries, and induces melting of the permafrost. When the permafrost melts, it releases carbon that's been trapped in the form of methane gas. These emissions will contribute to the warming temperatures and inevitably climate change.

The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline proposal in 1970, prompted national and international attention because of the negative impacts it would've had on the caribou population. Approximately 170,000 caribou reside in Alaska, Yukon, and the Mackenzie Delta. During the calving periods, the caribou migrated towards the grounds that were proposed for development. If development was approved, the drilling would've affected the feeding grounds and the migration routes of the caribou into Canada. Soon after, this proposal was shelved because the negative impacts outweighed the benefits of advancing as a Canadian Society. Similarly, drilling in the Arctic in entirety would have detrimental effects on wildlife that reside in the region.

Oil and Ice: The Risks of Drilling in Alaska's Arctic Ocean

Sustainable Development Approaches & Methods

  • The "International Polar Year" was a collaborative project between scientists to provide an assessment of the Arctic Drilling and it's impacts on the environment and the people living in the area. This 2-year environmental assessment period occurred in the Arctic to understand the correlation between drilling and it's potential outputs.

  • The level of consideration for indigenous communities is equivalent to that of the environment. The development projects are nit-picked and challenged to reassure that the northern environment is monitored and sustained for future demands. This project also indicated where the potential non-renewable resources existed and the risks of further development of the area. This segued developers into planning for specific locations rather than sectioning a large-scale drilling location.

  • It may also be beneficial to recruit a team for the environmental monitoring of the drilling sites to ensure that there is no repeat of the Deepwater Horizon incident. Every step, should be made with considerable attention to the environment and the surrounding wildlife. The associated risks should be cleared with the Indigenous peoples so they have some involvement in the decision-making of their land.

  • To ensure that this resource is sustainable for the future, decrease the demand for petroleum-based resources and encourage environmentally-safe practises to the public (i.e. public transportation). It may be critical to have this kind of communication with the people because as demand increases, the drilling will also be delayed.

In a nutshell...

The consumption rate of oil reserves increases annually. The research and drilling in the Arctic is ensuring that we can extract enough oil to satisfy demands temporarily. Although, this extraction method is appealing to demands, there are various social and environmental concerns that encircle this development (i.e. large-scale drilling sites disturb migratory routes of caribou). So, this valuable asset must be strategically monitored and assessed to ensure that an environmental sustainable approach is taken and local/international communities are satisfied.