After waiting years to get permission, Royal Dutch Shell finally began drilling its first exploration well in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest Alaskan coast this past summer. Tests of its safety equipment have not gone well, and wind-driven sea ice has threatened the operation. Any further drilling of the exploration well has now been postponed until next summer.
This has been a benign season in the Arctic, and still the result is failure. This does not bode well for Arctic drilling, but if we can be sure of anything in this uncertain world, we can expect Shell, and BP, and Chevron, and the biggest of them all, ExxonMobil – as well as the Norwegian and Russian oil companies – to explore the Arctic and then to drill it over the next decades.
A recent book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll tells the tale of ExxonMobil from the catastrophic spill by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, through its rise in reach, power and wealth to become the most profitable of global corporations, to its present belated enthusiasm for fracking. It is an extraordinary tale of bald self-interest and cynicism.
Over the past 20 years, ExxonMobil has moved slowly and reluctantly through a series of attitudes about climate change. Of course it denied the reality of global warming for as long as possible, and funded the research of the skeptics. Then, eventually, it agreed that burning carbon-based fuels was in fact warming the planet – but its own analysis determined that the global demand for energy is growing so fast that even if alternate sources are available, they will only fill a small part of the need. We will remain dependent on ExxonMobil and the other oil companies for oil and natural gas for the next decades.
Seeing how the wind is now blowing in the US, ExxonMobil now supports the call for energy independence and even says that it could tolerate a carbon tax – but it believes in neither taxes nor the need for US energy independence.
ExxonMobil is a huge global corporation whose products are natural gas and oil, and whose sole motive is profit. It is present in 200 countries, extracting oil and gas from dozens of them. It is resistant to any action that might decrease its global access and profit. Its influence in US flows through through the efforts of lobbyists working on congressmen, cabinet members, and presidents. Access is never denied.
No government can resist the oil companies, not even the US. Coll’s book is very sobering.
Meanwhile, despite the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, offshore exploration and drilling is expanding around the world. Taking the risks, especially in the Arctic, is madness. Unfortunately, the oil companies, in their endless quest for more profits from more exploitable oil and gas deposits, remain indifferent to the long-term impact of what they do.
The only concern ExxonMobil and the other oil companies express is that at some point the nations of the planet finally will become really afraid of the effects of global warming and agree to take concerted, major action.
Our challenge then is to bring that about now, not decades from now. We can start with the current US election – although neither party talks about climate change, at least President Obama understands that it exists and that it poses great dangers. In Canada we can try to constrain the development of the Alberta oil sands and the exploration for oil and gas in Canada’s Arctic.
And we can push back against the oil companies. They need our encouragement to do the right thing.
As do our governments.