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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Plundering the polar ice caps - a blunder in making!


Oil in the Antarctic!
Diamonds in the Arctic!

The whole world (read the business community) leaped in joy. The excitement was palpable. The search for a cheaper alternate energy source suddenly seemed not necessary. The OIL magazine – an energy industry quarterly dedicated its whole March 2013 issue to celebrate the great discovery.  Gianni di Giovanni its editor in chief remarked that the new frontier in energy procurement runs along the Arctic Circle.

Russia officially became the first country to start drilling the ice caps. And it went a step further by demonstrating its stern commitment to its efforts by labelling and convicting Greenpeace activists with piracy. And with Russia’s bold move came similar responses from other nations, who too suddenly jumped the bandwagon to claim their share of the pie. Many nations since then have even formulated a military strategy for the poles.

It’s an accepted fact that the industrial revolution has made us energy hungry. Fossil fuels are the cheapest, most economical source of this energy – another undeniable fact. The last decade has been particularly tricky with the need to find a balance between sourcing cheap energy and rejuvenating the badly damaged ecology. The various conferences and treaties signed since the Kyoto protocol seemed to be the right step forward. But then a few months back, the Russian move suddenly made all these treaties mere words writing on a worthless piece of paper.

Drilling in the remote and harsh but pristine environment of the poles poses two distinct risks:
  • Risks to human life working at the rigs
  • Environmental risks


The year 2012 was supposed to be a big year for Royal Dutch Shell. The company announced its plans to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska. The coup de grace came on New Year’s even when their rig ran aground near Kodiak. This blunder required the efforts of around 500 personnel and the coast guard working day in and out in the harsh climate to secure the rig. Soon Shell struggled to meet most of the US government’s safety requirements. And in 2013 – they abandoned the project. An independent audit later confirmed that the company did not have the equipment nor the capability to drill in such harsh climatic conditions.

The environmental risks posed by polar drilling are – (1) releasing trapped methane from the caps (2) oil spills and (3) tampering with the pristine ecology.

It is estimated that around 1700 billion tons of methane is trapped in the polar ice caps. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and has the capacity to accelerate global warming at an exponential rate. This factor is never accounted for in the calculations that lead the big energy houses and governments to initiate the idea of polar drilling. In the event of a methane leak from the poles, the effects of climate change such as sea level rise, unpredictable climate etc. would be experienced at a much larger scale than otherwise predicted.

The next major concern from polar drilling is an oil spill. We have already seen the impacts of oil spills on marine lives and coastal communities. Today we do have technology that can be used to mitigate the effects of such spills. But as Shell’s blunder rightly pointed out – we lack the expertise and the technology to counter such an event at the poles. It would simply be catastrophic.

And finally our biggest concern is destroying the last remaining pristine ecology on earth. We in our quest for energy, power and money have plundered the entire world, messed with the ecology and experimented with the balance of nature. Through all these years of mismanagement and stupidity we have learnt the lesson and hence there now exists the need to go green. But the whole drama surrounding the oil exploration exercises at the poles suggests that we as human beings cannot change our originality, but simply put a cloak of pretentiousness.

And now we hear there is abundant coal and diamond reserves as well!

Wake up Earthizen!