Yesterday, the Northern Lights went out: The Arctic and the future of global energy

This week, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it would postpone oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea and the broader American Arctic indefinitely. The decision came in the wake of disappointing output from its Burger field, the high costs associated with the project (already nearing $7 billion), the “challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska,” and a growing public relations problem with environmental groups opposed to Arctic drilling.

This decision is a momentous one—both for the future of the U.S. energy policy and the ability of the international oil industry to balance global oil supply and demand. The announcement came only days after Hillary Clinton spoke out against the Keystone Pipeline, not only because it would lead to the consumption of more fossil fuels but also because much of the oil might be exported. With broader opposition to lifting the ban on crude oil exports gaining momentum in the White House, it is clear that at least part of the nation’s political leadership is moving in a nationalistic direction. This means that the United States—with its vast resources—is unwilling to help meet the burgeoning energy needs of the world’s population: especially the 1.2 billion people who have no access to commercial energy.

Shell’s decision highlights four significant and diverse areas of concern for the future of energy globally and energy policy here in the United States.

Mapping supply and demand

Shell and much of the rest of the international petroleum industry had viewed the Chukchi Sea as one of the last great oil frontiers. The Chukchi and adjoining Beaufort Seas are vital for meeting the estimated 12 to 15 million barrels per day (mmbd) of additional oil demand projected by almost all oil forecasts (both inside and outside the industry) needed between 2035 and 2040. 

Without the U.S. Arctic, the other areas projected to make major contributions by this time are Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, shale oil around the world (including North America), the Orinoco region of Venezuela, and the pre-salt offshore Brazil. Needless to say, given the political turmoil in Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Brazil—as well as concerns about the long term stability of Saudi Arabia—one has to wonder: Where will the world discover additional, reliable crude oil supplies without a major contribution from the Arctic?

Many in the environmental community argue that we will not need fossil fuels in the future, predicting a turn to renewables, enhanced energy efficiency, large scale battery storage, and electric vehicles. Unfortunately, this has no basis in fact. Clearly renewables will grow exponentially as their prices fall, new technologies will increase energy efficiency, large scale battery storage will commence, and many electric vehicles will hit the road. But there are currently more than 260 million gas and diesel vehicles running on U.S. roads alone, with less than 1 percent of these running on electricity. With transportation fuel demand mushrooming globally, it’s unlikely that oil consumption in the transportation sector will die or even decline significantly. 

Fossil fuels for development

Drilling in the Arctic poses unique environmental risks which must be managed through state-of–the-art technology and accompanied by the most stringent regulatory enforcement. A recent National Petroleum Council examination of all possible challenges involved in Arctic offshore drilling found that drilling can be done safely. Yet despite these findings, most major national environmental groups have opposed any drilling in the Arctic and have even asserted that Shell’s decision is a vindication of their position. But these groups don’t seem concerned or even thoughtful about the long-term implications of the U.S. energy industry’s abandonment of the Arctic.

With the world’s population forecast to rise by 1.6 billion people by 2035, do we really think global oil demand won’t continue to rise? While I recognize that we must do everything to limit the growing use of fossil fuels to attack climate change, do we really have no moral obligation to help countries emerge from poverty, which will almost certainly involve continued use of fossil fuels? 

During his recent visit to America, Pope Francis called for the world to make a renewed commitment to help the “poorest of the poor,” and the United Nations has also put forward new sustainable development goals that include an expansion of energy access to those who are either unserved or underserved. Focusing our policies exclusively on shutting down U.S. fossil fuel development, as some environmental groups advocate, takes away resources that can be used to improve global health, education, clean water, and women’s empowerment—all of which are all directly related to energy access. In looking at girl’s education, for example, increasing energy availability allows water to be pumped up from the river, obviating the need for arduous, tedious work for the women and girls that would otherwise have to carry this water by hand to their communities, limiting time for education. The availability of energy allows vaccines to be safely stored, crops to be refrigerated, and children to have the electricity available to study at night. 

All of these benefits—and many others—cannot happen without improving electricity access, which still involves fossil fuel. The United States can and should play a role in this effort.

Jostling for Arctic access

Shell is not the only company to experience setbacks in the Arctic. Italy’s ENI SpA and Norway’s Statoil ASA just yesterday had another regulatory setback due to delays in obtaining permission from Norway to commence production. In June, a consortium including Exxon and BP PLC suspended its Canadian Arctic exploration, noting insufficient time to begin test drilling before the expiration of its lease in 2020. In addition, Exxon had to curtail its plans to drill in the Russian Arctic after the United States imposed sanctions on Moscow and its energy industry following the annexation of Crimea. 

Russia, though, remains active in the Arctic, and it can be assumed that once sanctions are lifted, many oil companies will try to gain a toehold. China, Korea, India, and Singapore, among other countries, have expressed interest in gaining access to the region’s mineral, energy, and/or marine resources. In several cases, they are building ice-worthy vessels to give them the capability to do so. The Bering Strait is emerging as a significant new maritime route in desperate need of enhanced regulation.

In a report last year, my colleagues and I looked at key recommendations for offshore oil and gas governance as the United States assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Beyond highlighting the resource potential of the region, our work looked at increasing needs for safety and security as a result of increasing transportation across the Arctic. Even as the United States stands to be less involved in Arctic energy development, it is our duty as chair of the Arctic Council to lead in region. 

Alaska is a state, not a park

The promise of the Arctic has inspired adventurers, explorers, geographers, scientists, and entrepreneurs for generations and will continue to do so in the future. The United States should be actively involved in helping to ensure that Arctic resources are developed and used prudently—rather than sit on the sidelines with myopic dreams of leaving the region a pristine wilderness. Arctic inhabitants—both natives and others—of course want to keep the Arctic safe, but they do not want to make it a museum. 

Development of the region’s resources accounts for nearly 95 percent of Alaska’s revenues. If we deny its development, are we prepared to make a line item in the federal budget to pay for Alaska to remain a park?