In a turn of events unrivaled in recent fossil fuel developments, one of the major world players in oil exploration and refining, has recently stated what many of us rational thinkers had thought would never be uttered; drilling in the Arctic is a bad idea. Joy! Finally someone a the top of the very issues that got us into this climate mess in the first place has perhaps seen some sense.
The CEO of Total, the world’s fourth largest oil conglomerate and not a company known for it’s environmental conscience has turned the table on its head, directly attacking and condemning the efforts of Shell and Gazprom in exploring the melting Arctic for new hydrocarbon reserves. CEO Christophe de Margerie openly admitted the high risks and potential dangers associated with offshore drilling in the Arctic, or anywhere for that matter, but it’s how he phrased the next part that slightly lessens the impact of this revelation.
According to de Margerie, Total will not be carrying out any exploration in the polar region, as a spillage “would do too much damage to the image of the company” and thus is not worth the risk.
So it seems that Total is scared of drilling the Arctic because of something not really connected to environmental or green issues whatsoever; it just doesn’t want to tarnish the record of its oh-so untarnished reputation as an oil demon. What’s instantly and obviously worrying is that there is absolutely no mention of the risks such a spill would have on the ecology, species, humans and general environment of the Arctic region, a highly sensitive and fragile part of the planet, and one which is already taking a considerable beating from a warming climate. It just shows that even when these behemoths of the fossil fuel world seem to be doing something right for once, there’s generally not a pure and environmentally-friendly motive behind it, but just a way of saving their own skins, not those of the ones at risk.
However, if the threat of ruining their rep in the same way that BP has blackened its name with the Deepwater Horizon disaster is strong enough to stop them from drilling up north, then I can somewhat condone it. Hell, it may even be useful to use this idea as a force to turn other companies such as Shell against the idea of drilling, but this is a whole new mission impossible of itself.
Speaking of Shell, this story fits quite nicely, at a time when they have been struggling with their own set of issues and failures, which if keep on happening, may lead them down the same route as Total. Their plans to explore the practically ice-free Arctic ocean for oil and gas was scuppered initially, when a rather large (hundreds of square kms) ice-flow threatened to barrel through their exploration ship. Once this had passed, Shell met yet further problems when a crucial piece of kit designed to cap a leaking well was damaged in testing, making them the laughing stock of many of the protesters and anti-drilling organizations, and forcing them to halt all plans until next year. I’m willing to bet they are relishing the chance for Greenpeace et al to use this newly presented spare time to berate and blast them as much as humanly possible, something they probably thought was long behind them.
Despite these setbacks though, Shell is not one for giving up, and seems to have turned it attention to another sinister venture to draw attention from its mistakes in the Arctic, perhaps to prove itself in the eyes of its skeptics, or to recover from the embarrassing loss of the drilling period. So what would that project be then?
Well, it looks like Shell will be breaking record books this year, by building the world’s largest, I repeat the globe’s absolute biggest, tanker/ship/floating monstrosity. This vessel, to be named Prelude (great name guys!) will act as the flagship for Shell’s innovative and expensive drive towards a fossil fuel rich and high-carbon planet, and will go about this by refining and transporting a HUGE amount of natural gas from the NE seas of Australia.
This thing will be as long as the Empire State Building is tall, weigh six times the tonnage of the largest aircraft carriers in the world, the Nimitz-class, and will cost a whopping $13bn to produce, with the hull expected to be complete by the end of this year. Within this great ark, 3.6m metric tons of LNG and 1.3m tons of gas condensate will be contained as it harvested and refined on-site, to then be shipped to whoever puts in the highest bid. I hear they’ll also be mounting loud-speakers blaring pro-Shell mottos and ship-length posters depicting the company cuddling the Earth for good measure, sailing it around the world as one giant advert for them. Okay, I made that last bit up, but it’s not hard to imagine right?
What’s interesting is how Shell puts the positive spin on this development. They state that by moving their LNG processes offshore, they reduce the manufacturing resources required by 50% and all but negate the need for a pipeline connecting it all up, and with current prices for building onshore LNG plants over $20bn, this ship is anything but a bad idea. While it may be true that a floating refinery is better than an onshore platform cost and project-wise, you shouldn’t let this cloud your judgment on what really matters.
Thanks to Grist, we have some values for the CO2 emissions of a plant of this size. Prelude will produce, annually, well over 22bn pounds of CO2, which equates to roughly 10 million metric tons of carbon emissions, just from this single ship. That is huge. So in this respect, who cares if it costs $7bn less to build and gets rid of the pipeline, there simply is not a need to build something this expensive, this large and this carbon-intensive and to tout it as a step forwards, it just isn’t. But then Shell needs something to make them look good; breaking a few records might do that.
So here we have two sides of the fossil fuel coin, never so starkly portrayed as it is now. On the one hand we have Total, a key player in the global oil drilling game, condemning the movement into Arctic waters and shying away from the risk and potential PR disaster that an offshore spill could bring, whilst on the other hand we have Shell and Gazprom, who are stampeding full-steam ahead, spearheading the new black-gold revolution in the melting polar ocean, despite the clear and present dangers it presents. Even though Shell has firsthand experience of these risks, they carry on unabated, and no doubt hope that their newest toy in Prelude will pump enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that when they come back to the Arctic next summer, their chances of being halted by ice-flows or a short ice-free season will be a thing of the past. There just won’t be any left.
You clever devils.
Shell have today rejected the risks that it’s rival Total have pointed out, with a spokesperson for the Arctic-keen company stating that “At Shell, we believe the Arctic has significant untapped potential and will play an increasingly important role in meeting the energy challenge. It holds great opportunity and that comes with great responsibility,”.
So it would seem even when oil companies of similar power and stupidity see some sense and pull out, that ain’t gonna make one bit of difference to Shell’s plans.