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Russia prepares to drill new Arctic well with “the most controversial oil rig in the world”

The extreme conditions in the Arctic Ocean make drilling there a fraught proposition. Creative Commons: USGS, 2009

The extreme conditions in the Arctic Ocean make drilling there a fraught proposition. Creative Commons: USGS, 2009

After years of preparation, ExxonMobil and OAO Rosneft have received the go-ahead to begin drilling a $700 million Arctic Ocean oil well in the Kara Sea. The well, which will be Russia’s most northerly, is to be the first of as many as 40 offshore wells planned for the Arctic by 2018.

The well will access a geological formation roughly the size of the city of Moscow. The formation is expected to contain roughly 9 billion barrels of oil.

Speaking from the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russian President Vladmir Putin lauded ExxonMobil, calling the company Russia’s “old and reliable energy partner.

Under Putin, Russia has aggressively sought to bolster its status as the chief exporter of oil and gas to neighboring European countries. Last year, Russian oil output hit a post-Soviet high, with an average of 10.51 million barrels being produced per day.

However, Russia’s status as an energy giant is in question following the country’s annexation of Crimea. In an attempt to limit the primary source of the Russia’s wealth and power, the United States and Europe have issued sanctions that deny access to Western technology needed to access polar and deepwater oil, as well as unconventional deposits that can only be tapped into using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times why these sanctions matter:

The biggest edge that Western energy companies still have is their technological edge—that’s why these sanctions have the potential to have significant impact Chinese companies can’t step in and provide shale technology where U.S. companies are blocked. They can provide capital; they can provide people. They can’t fill in on the technology front.

In spite of the sanctions, ExxonMobil will continue to be involved in the drilling of the well, since contracts to hire the company’s West Alpha rig were signed before the sanctions were announced. ExxonMobil’s Russia chief Glenn Waller seemed unconcerned about the geopolitical implications of working with Russia, calling the drilling of the well “a historical moment for global oil industry.”

The oil companies involved seem similarly unconcerned with the environmental impacts of an Arctic oil spill.

Due to extreme weather and the presence of moving sea ice, Arctic oil extraction is a high-risk enterprise. Not only do the conditions in the Arctic make a catastrophic spill more likely, they also could make a cleanup near impossible. According to the Pew Environment Group, oil companies are far from prepared to counter a spill in the region.

In response to the decision to green light the new well, Gustavo Ampugnani, an Arctic campaigner at Greenpeace, said, “the West Alpha platform is fast becoming the most controversial oil rig in the world.” He added that Exxon and OAO Rosneft’s plan “to drill in the ecologically sensitive Arctic is nothing less than absurd.”

An Arctic oil spill would almost certainly devastate the region’s fragile ecosystem, and could severely impact the four million people—many of them indigenous—that call the Arctic home.

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