Arctic Oil’s Place at the Climate-Change Table

"In order for policy makers to make the smartest decisions on the role of oil in making the leap from today to tomorrow in this incredibly fragile ecosystem, they need access to all pertinent information..."

As U.S. president Barack Obama toured Alaska on a campaign to promote aggressive climate action, the White House has sought to raise awareness of the devastating effects environmental shifts have had in the Arctic. Between visiting with tribal leaders, hiking to the receding Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park and viewing the overwhelming impacts of coastal erosion in two rural Alaskan communities, there has been a lot of unsettling ground to cover.

President Obama’s sojourn north is a strong message on the importance of inclusivity in the climate-change conversation. And yet, despite his efforts to engage a wide variety of local representatives, one key stakeholder remains absent in the official agenda: the oil industry.

Shouldering Climate Burdens

Offering the petroleum industry an invitation to discuss climate-change mitigation and adaptation in a region that many believe is melting because of their business model is counterintuitive and controversial, but it is essential.

A long-term, hopeful vision for a world run primarily on zero-carbon renewable energy resources is imperative in the fight against climate change. But so, too, is the acknowledgement that decarbonizing the global economy will not happen overnight. Even with the precipitous drop in oil prices and the potential for a global climate deal, oil will continue to play a major role in both international energy supplies and domestic economies in the short and medium terms.

Alaska is certainly no exception to this reality. As today’s fourth-largest oil-producing U.S. state, about 500,000 barrels of oil are extracted here each day—a number that could significantly increase in the decades to come. With an estimated 130 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and natural-gas liquids based on an old 2008 assessment, the Arctic may be one of the largest remaining resource repositories.

Locally, the oil and gas industry reportedly accounts for one-third of all Alaskan jobs and the petroleum industry generated two-thirds of total state revenue in 2014. That revenue supports education programs, social services and a significant annual dividend to every eligible state resident upon which many Alaskan families have come to rely.

Oil’s role in Alaska is not merely economic; it has provided a strong societal safety net for America’s northernmost citizens for the past half-century. And it should continue to support Alaskans as they simultaneously transform the state into one that is drastically less reliant on oil and adapts to a rapidly warming environment.

Drilling Deeper for Data

One of the biggest challenges facing the Arctic today is the lack of publicly available baseline data about the complex interactions between this truly unique ecosystem and the development of petroleum that will impact the rest of the world. Evidence suggests that the effects of greenhouse gases are more drastic in northern latitudes, where significant oil exploration and production efforts are centered. In addition, Arctic drilling risks damaging ice sheets, releasing methane stored in permafrost and tampering with fragile carbon sinks that are integral for the earth’s natural carbon-sequestration mechanism.

Without reliable, publicly available knowledge about Arctic oil’s scientific specifications, we cannot realistically assess the hazards of Arctic resource development. It will be critical touncover oil’s unknowns,” especially for the growing array of new oils in once-unreachable areas that technological advances are making accessible. For Arctic oils in particular, there is significant uncertainty about drilling into ice-covered seas, surface processing under extreme conditions, damage done during intensive seasonally limited oil operations, altered land use impacts on permafrost and the effect of pollution on glaciers.

A new Oil-Climate Index created by a team from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Stanford University and the University of Calgary ranks global oils based on their total greenhouse gas emissions. Four categories of oils with higher greenhouse-gas impacts have been identified to date, including oils in fragile ecosystems. While the Index currently includes one Arctic Ocean oil, Alaska North Slope (ANS), the category suffers from a lack of baseline data on the petroleum and the ecosystem within which it is embedded. To mitigate this uncertainty and ensure that decisions are based on the best information available, it will take far more data acquisition to accurately model Arctic oils’ climate consequences.

Beyond Cooperation

The information void must be filled. The best time to do this is now, when the United States is serving as chair of the Arctic Council, because America brings to the table one of the world’s strongest environmental and safety oversight records.