HOUSTON – Extreme cold.
Ice-clogged seas eight to 10 months every year.
An ancient, indigenous people living on Alaska’s North Slope who hunt local Bowhead whale.
Marine mammals, deep-sea coral and Greenpeace.
The Arctic waters have proven a formidable foe for Royal Dutch Shell, and its efforts to extract oil there require continuing scientific research, says Michael Macrander, Shell’s chief scientist in Alaska.
Shell is in a special position to understand the difficulties. It has invested nearly $6 billion in its Arctic oil ambitions over nearly a decade, culminating in a problem-plagued preliminary drilling mission to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2012. Equipment difficulties kept the company from going back in 2013, and it recently abandoned efforts to assemble a fleet of barges, tugboats, tankers and drilling equipment in the Chukchi Sea this year.
“It’s a challenging place to operate, so in order to operate there, we need to be able to provide a good understanding of the physical conditions and how to deal with them,” Macrander said during a luncheon presentation on the first day of this week’s Arctic Technology Conference at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Shell collaborates every year with more than 200 researchers from consulting companies, universities and research organizations, as well as with other companies that work in Arctic areas including Houston-based ConocoPhillips. Shell and its partners have studied the Chukchi Sea and its marine life since 2008.
But Shell’s science program isn’t just a way to learn how to search for oil without damaging the ecosystem. Before it could start digging into the Arctic seabed, Shell had to acquire dozens of state and federal permits and prove it understood how drilling activity would affect the region and its ecosystem.
And it faces the same process before it can drill there again.
“The unfortunate reality is that in the absence of adequate scientific information to support permitting, agencies are prone to adopt a precautionary approach,” Macrander said. “So the only way we can move beyond precaution is to help develop, comment on and engage in the science that the regulators need.”
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Shell, Macrander said, has determined from aerial and sonic data that its drilling activities only affected Bowhead whale migration patterns in a small area surrounding the drill site. And — good news for indigenous hunters living near Alaskan shores -– it could be that the drilling has pushed the whales closer to land.
The company also has improved its understanding of other animals migration patterns, ice and weather forecasting, Macrander said. It has hired a team of scientists to interpret data and generate maps of ice and weather data to help guide its vessels through the cold waters, Macrander said.
“I think through this program and other programs we’ve revolutionized the understanding of this ecosystem,” he said.
One August morning two years ago, Macrander was greeted outside his office by reporters asking about the existence of deep-sea coral in the waters close to the areas Shell planned to drill.
Media outlets had reported that Greenpeace marine biologists had found the first coral ever collected in the Chukchi Sea. But Shell had known for years that deep-sea coral was part of the region’s rich ecosystem, Macrander said.
“We had literature, citations and such that this was well known to science,” he said. “But had we not made that investment in the science and had the knowledge base, that could have stopped our 2012 drilling program before it ever got started.”
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