The Arctic is changing fast, and it’s going to cost us a lot

I’ve just finished reviewing a 1600 page “Draft Environmental Impact Statement” (DEIS) issued for public comments about the five year plan for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The objective of the “draft” is to provide US citizens the opportunity to chime in on how – and if – we want the US Arctic waters surveyed for oil and gas deposits.

It is particularly ironic that just as the DEIS was being issued Shell Oil began dealing with a huge oil spill off the coast of Nigeria and another spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which occurred during the same sort of exploratory drilling that is being proposed in the Arctic), and Chevron is currently dealing with yet another platform explosion off the Nigerian coast. This tragic irony is punctuated throughout the DEIS by the recurring statement that an oil spill would be “highly unlikely.”

The rosy assumptions of “negligible impacts” colors the entire DEIS; the subjective term “unlikely” is peppered throughout when addressing impacts of seismic airgun surveys, discharge of drilling “muds” and chemical waste, noise from shipping and air transport, air pollution, and noise from icebreakers. And while the “highly unlikely” oil spill is on everyone’s mind, many other adverse impacts of oil and gas exploration are not even addressed in the DEIS; for example the persistent noise of thruster-stabilized drilling platforms, underwater acoustical communications equipment, and erection of “jack-up rigs.” While these noises may not be as loud as the seismic airgun surveys addressed in the DEIS (which produce continuous series of explosions that can be heard hundreds to thousands of miles away in the ocean) they will nonetheless produce a chronic smog of noise pollution which will compromise the acoustical habitat that fish, whales, and other marine life depend on to communicate, find food, and evade predators.

It is clear that the intention of the exploration strategies proposed in the DEIS are not to “just find out what is out there,” but rather to find out where extraction operations will yield the best results. If there is one thing that is “highly unlikely,” it is that fossil fuel found in the exploration phase will remain untapped.

Clearing the way to extraction is the fundamental assumption made by issuing this exploration DEIS, and as such it is the gateway to rapid expansion of oil and gas operations in the Arctic – the impacts of which will make the proposed exploration impacts in the DEIS pale.

But there are those who argue that securing domestic energy supplies (and the millions of jobs that the American Petroleum Industry is promising us) will be worth the risks. Unfortunately the cost is extremely high. This is not just the cost to the environment, nor the cost of tax subsidies we give to the oil industry, nor the individual costs we all bear every time we drive our cars to the pump. The ultimate cost is the response of our planet to climate change. The impacts of this are most apparent is in the Arctic – with a second irony being that the receding Arctic ice cap induced by climate change is exposing ever more of the deadly treasure.

Time and time again, by way of systematic justifications of some environmental compromise or other we have been eroding the environmental health of the very habitat that we depend on for our own life support. This is evidenced by the continuous acceleration of species extinctions world-wide. This trend points to the fact that soon enough humans will find ourselves near the top of the “endangered” list – unless we begin to make broad systematic changes in the way we engage with our limited planetary habitat. Drilling in the Arctic is a bad way to start.

Throwing Precaution to the Wind – and the Waves

Wave Energy by Ocean PowerLtd

Wave Energy - Courtesy of Ocean Power Ltd.

A recent IBM press release on an ocean noise monitoring project caught the attention of Forbes and other press this week because of a bit of an ironic twist: Our lack of precaution in developing earlier energy technologies – fossil fuel and nuclear, has sensitized us to potential problems in advancing new sustainable technologies like wind and wave energy.

It is never too late to adopt precaution. The concerns are quite real that noise generated by the installation and operation of thousands of wind turbines or wave and tidal harvesting systems across large areas of the ocean will have habitat impacts. Any energy development deployed in these large scales will. It remains to be heard what the impacts are and if there will be easy mitigation strategies should we find the artifacts of these technologies agonistic to marine life.

Video Link: Pelagis Wind Farm

Though what I find doubly ironic is that we know the earlier energy technologies are killing us – by way of intractable and persistent pollution, or by way of climate change; nonetheless we are casting all precaution to the wind by opening up new and reckless sources of fossil fuel in the Arctic, the Marcellus Shale, and the Canadian Tar Sands (for example). Meanwhile we are cautiously moving ahead on technologies made vital by our very lack of precaution in earlier energy technologies.


Tar Sands

I‘m not suggesting that we shouldn’t throw caution to the wind; but while were at it we should throw caution to oil and gas as well.

Mitigating offshore wind farm noise

One of the hot topics at the recent International Quiet Ocean Experiment in Paris was the noise impacts of offshore wind farms. It seems that while the American Oilmen are furiously trying to carve up the Arctic for fossil fuel, the Europeans are rapidly developing wind power. Much of this is happening in the North Sea between the United Kingdom and the European continent.

North Sea Wind Farm

While wind power has significantly lower environmental impact than fossil fuel, it does not come without drawbacks. From a noise standpoint the concerns include the noise of installation, and the ongoing noises of operation.

The operation noises include gearbox vibration transmitted down the mast, and the thumping noise generated by the tip vortices as they pass by a boundary (like the ocean surface).

Pile Driving with bubble curtain

The installation noises in the shallow North Sea are from pile-driving the foundations to mount the mast. Percussive noise from pile driving was found to be deadly to fish, and pernicious to marine mammals.

Mitigation for pile driving noise was first developed during the San Francisco Bay Area bridge retrofits and involves the use of “bubble curtains.” By surrounding a driving pile with a ring of air bubbles, the water and noise within the ring can be acoustically isolated from the surrounding environment.

The drawback here is that the process is energy intensive because a high volume of air needs to be continuously forced down to the depth of the seabed to be released in a continuous stream. This can get really expensive: This mandated mitigation doubled the cost of the Richmond Bridge seismic retrofit.

But researchers at the University of Texas, Austin have developed an improvement on the bubble curtain – by encapsulating the bubbles in a latex envelope, a curtain can be installed while pile driving, and then relocated when needed elsewhere.

This promising technology could decrease the expense as well as the noise of developing wind farms in the North Sea – or even off the coast of America!

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