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March 6, 2014

The Economist’s Arctic Summit Convenes in London

This week, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Economist’s Arctic Summit, held in London. The summit brought leaders from the oil and gas, shipping, and mining industries together with world leaders, academics, and others to talk about various aspects of development in the Arctic region.

The prime minister of Greenland, Aleqa Hammond, gave the opening keynote address, and Mark Simmonds, British Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, gave a brief presentation. I think I may have been the only Alaskan in the room, but it was easy to find common ground for conversation. For example, I was seated at a table with representatives from FedNav, a shipping company that, among other projects, ships condensate from Alaska’s Red Dog Mine.

Most of the day’s discussion focused on growing interest in development in the Arctic region—both on and offshore.  Amidst that enthusiasm was the recognition that steps must be taken to protect Arctic ecosystems, prepare for changing climate, and fully account for all of the risks inherent in industrial activities in a remote and difficult part of the world.

The summit concluded with a presentation from Pen Hadow, a polar explorer. Mr. Hadow provided details from his solo trip to the North Pole. He used experiences from that journey—and his two prior failed attempts—as cautionary tales for those seeking economic opportunity in the region. He discussed what it is like to try to make decisions or fix problems at temperatures more than 30 degrees below zero. In those circumstances, he said, being prepared—even what might seem like over prepared—is the key to survival. The same holds true for companies seeking to operate in the Arctic region.

Mr. Hadow’s presentation highlighted the reasons we have opposed Shell’s plans to drill exploration wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. As the company’s 2012 problems again demonstrated, Shell is not prepared—let alone over prepared—for the conditions in the Arctic Ocean. Its response equipment has never been tested in Arctic waters. The company did not have adequately trained pilots or deicing equipment in the Beaufort Sea. Its brand new tug, the Aiviq, also had not been tested in Arctic waters, and all four of its engines failed. The choice to move the Kulluk in dangerous weather in order to avoid paying state taxes reflected a failure to appreciate the seriousness of the ocean conditions in Alaska. The list goes on and on.

These are not the actions of a company that has paid attention to detail, fully appreciated the difficulty of the tasks it has chosen, or prepared adequately. Until and unless companies show that they can operate safely and without harming the Arctic Ocean ecosystem, they should not be allowed to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.