Exxon Mobil official promotes Arctic exploration

American oil companies should explore for crude in Arctic waters so they can bring it up by the time the nation’s shale oil fields have been mostly drained in two decades, an Exxon Mobil official said Thursday.

“The world has a tremendous thirst for energy,” said Jed Hamilton, senior Arctic consultant at Exxon Mobil Upstream Research Co., during a panel debate at the University of Houston.

Royal Dutch Shell’s multibillion-dollar drilling expedition into Arctic waters, originally launched in 2012 and restarted this year after a series of setbacks, has been criticized as too dangerous given harsh weather, and earlier this year drew passionate protests including from activists who scaled the rig that Shell contracted to drill in the Arctic.

But oil companies are hoping to discover massive energy deposits under the harsh Arctic waters at a time when new offshore oil reserves are becoming harder to find. Melting ice is making it easier to develop oil resources by giving companies access to new areas.

“If the U.S. stands in the background, Russia will move forward, and things won’t be as good as they could be if the U.S. had a seat at the table in the Arctic,” Hamilton said.

Exxon Mobil had partnered with Russian oil companies to drill in the Russian Arctic in the Kara Sea before international sanctions were put in place last year. Oil companies are also tapping the Canadian Beaufort Sea.

Environmental experts on the panel argued Arctic drilling is too risky because even five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the oil industry can’t rely on technology it’s built to prevent oil spills that could be catastrophic for ecosystems north of Alaska, a region they described as the world’s circulatory system.

Peter Van Tuyn, an Alaska attorney at Bessenyey & Van Tuyn, said the rate of incidents in which oil companies lose control of their wells hasn’t changed even after BP’s Macondo well blew out and spewed millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The equipment built to prevent oil spills in the ocean “just hasn’t developed to the point where it’s meaningful yet,” Van Tuyn said.

And the ecosystems in the Arctic are extremely fragile, because there are few predator and prey species in Arctic waters, meaning they greatly depend on each other. If one were destroyed, others would follow, meaning an oil spill “could cause an ecosystem collapse,” said Kevin Huran, Arctic program director at Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based conservation group.

“You’re going to hear that technology is the answer – better rigs, better blowout technology,” Huran said. “But there is an inherent unsafe situation by mixing oil and water. This is not the Gulf Coast.”

In the Gulf of Mexico, bacteria that evolved to eat hydrocarbons can help mitigate the effects of oil spills, but oil doesn’t break down as easily in the Arctic.

The debate on Thursday, which drew a crowd of about 700, was the first of four energy symposiums that will be held at the University of Houston over the next few months. A second debate, focusing on carbon taxes, is planned for Nov. 10. Two more events will be held in February and March.

The UH Energy Symposium Series has for three years served as a gathering place for industry officials and environmental experts to talk about key energy topics. The Houston Chronicle’s energy website, FuelFix.com, is a sponsor of the symposium series.

The moderator of the debate, Richard Haut, program director of energy production at the Houston Advanced Research Center, noted any endeavor in the Arctic faces a world of challenges oil companies don’t encounter in most other places, from storms as strong as hurricanes to thick sea ice, near-perpetual darkness and cold and a unique ecosystem.

Hamilton, the Exxon official, argued technology to prevent oil spills has improved greatly over the years. After Deepwater Horizon, the industry designed independent blowout preventers called capping stacks that can block the flow of a runaway oil well in hours and days, faster than the time it takes for normal blowout preventers to stop the flow.

Also, Hamilton said, shale oil fields at the center of a domestic energy surge will not be able to produce oil indefinitely, and the United States will need domestic supplies to replace that oil.

Shale wells pump most of their oil in the first year after they’re drilled, while conventional wells like those drilled in the ocean decline at a steady rate of 6 percent a year. He said even if Shell makes a big discovery in the Arctic, it will likely be 2030 by the time the industry is ready to produce oil there.

Huran said the industry should wait for technology to improve enough to guarantee it can prevent an oil spill.

“There is no harm in moving slowly here,” said Huran said.