The Effects of Arctic Offshore Drilling on Marine Ecosystems and Wildlife

Mila Calandrino, Natural Resources Conservation

Shauna Goulet, Environmental Science

Brendon DeAlmeida, Building Construction Technology

At the northernmost reaches of our planet lies a vast land that remains virtually untouched by human activity. This pristine environment is home to animals who are able to survive in the harshest conditions on Earth. In the coldest areas of the Arctic, wind stirs up drifts of brilliant white snow, creating the illusion of constant snowfall. Summertime is short, and brings with it the growth of small green shrubs in the southernmost parts of the usually snow-covered tundra. Miles of blue ocean are covered by seasonal blocks of sea-ice that provide critical habitat for polar bears and other unique Arctic organisms. Below the ice is a variety of unique marine organisms. These creatures range in size from giant, black bowhead whales that use their massive heads to crash through the ice to microscopic phytoplankton, the whales’ primary prey

A group of narwhals hunt for prey amidst the seasonal sea-ice.

A group of narwhals hunt for prey amidst the seasonal sea-ice.

The extreme beauty of the Arctic is undeniable, however the world is now turning its attention toward this northern pole for a different reason. At a time when natural resources are dwindling and becoming more difficult to access, the Arctic becomes a beacon of hope. In addition to the undeniably pleasing aesthetics of this harsh environment, there also exists an abundance of untapped natural resources. Because most of the Arctic landmass is comprised of ice covering a tumultuous ocean, the ocean floor contains considerable wealth in the form of natural gas, oil and minerals. Unfortunately, the accession of these resources is a source of some contention.

Ultimately, the natural gases present in the Arctic could provide the world with much-needed resources. Fossil fuels are depleting faster than expected, and global oil demand has been steadily increasing. At the moment, “conventional hydrocarbons are expected to represent the major (75 percent) energy source for society” (OGP, 2013, p. 9). Most sources of hydrocarbon that are easily accessible are being developed, and large oil companies such as Shell and Exxon have turned to the Arctic to supply for future hydrocarbon needs (OGP, 2013). In the entire polar region, an estimated 412 billion barrels of oil is present according to the USGS (The Guardian, n.d., para. 14).  This comprises around 13% of the undiscovered oil in the world, and “30% of the undiscovered natural gas” (OGP, 2013, p. 9), according to a United States Geological Survey. Around 84% of these recoverable resources are believed to exist in offshore oil fields (OGP, 2013, p. 9). Of these remaining resources, 32.6% exist in areas of the Arctic owned by the United States (The Guardian, n.d., para. 18). Additionally, new oil fields found off the coast of Russia in the Northeastern Barents Sea are thought to contain enough oil alone to fill anywhere between 65 and 165 barrels of oil (Reeves et al., 2014, p. 381).

One point of contention between user groups is the potential impact of drilling activity on Arctic marine organisms. A common belief is that exposure to oil results in reduced ecosystem health. However, Hylland et al. (2008) found that chemicals associated with drilling activity, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), do not significantly impact marine organisms. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of more than 100 different chemicals that are released from burning coal, oil, gasoline, trash, tobacco, wood, or other organic substances (Tox Town, 2016, para. 1). PAHs are thought to increase the likelihood that cod DNA would bind to cancer-causing chemicals (Hylland et al., 2008). Hylland et al. (2008) found that the percentage of cod with DNA bound to cancer-causing chemicals was 17% higher at the control site than at a site 500 meters away from the drilling platform (p. 421). Similarly, PAH levels in blue mussels were not significantly different in organisms that were exposed to contaminants compared to those that were not (Hylland et al., 2008).

Trefry et al. (2013) argue that drilling has minimal effects on creatures that live in sediments on the ocean floor. Although these creatures are sensitive to a change in metal composition of the sediments, Trefry et al. (2013) found that there was no significant difference in the types and quantities of metals found in sediments near drilling sites compared to sediments at sites unaffected by drilling activities. Although these studies were not conducted with a large oil spill in mind, they serve to show that chronic leakage does not seem to affect marine creatures, and thus is not a good enough reason to stop searching for resources in this environment.

The utilization of offshore natural resources provides economic benefits for countries in the Arctic circle. In addition to the increase in this finite resource for practical use in these countries, “oil and gas activities create positive effects on a nation’s employment and economy” (Arctic Council, 2009, p. 7). Greenland wants to become more economically independent from Denmark, and is currently relying on the exports from their commercial fishing industries to generate income. The risk of overfishing as well as price changes due to world market fluctuations causes fish to be seen as an unreliable resource. In response, Greenland has begun offshore oil and gas exploratory activities in the hopes of generating income from non-renewable resources (Reeves et al, 2014). Some groups of indigenous peoples control Arctic territories, and drilling can provide these communities with much-needed income (The Guardian, n.d.). Shell’s decision to stop Arctic drilling plans was a major disappointment to Alaskan natives, who viewed this drilling as a way to boost their local economies (Koch, 2015). In the communities around Prudhoe Bay in the Alaskan Arctic, “all basic services in the form of schools, hospitals, roads, and utilities have been paid for in oil-derived revenues” (The Guardian, n.d., para. 51). With the absence of oil drilling, these communities may suffer serious financial setbacks.

Despite the perceived benefits to offshore oil exploration and drilling practices, there is another side to this argument that sheds light on the negative impacts of these drilling activities. The wealth of natural resources in the Arctic is undeniable, however the economic benefits to accessing these resources may not be as great as anticipated. Several of the largest oil companies in the world such as Shell and Exxon viewed the Arctic as the last frontier in oil extraction. Shell began Arctic oil exploration several years ago in a basin in the Alaskan Chukchi sea (Koch, 2015). Shell spent approximately 7 billion dollars during the process of drilling in this basin (Koch, 2015, para. 3), however the oil and gas findings were minimal. Because the costs of searching for this oil field were incredibly high, the minimal outputs from this well were called “disappointing” (Koch, 2015, para. 3) by a Shell executive. The amount of oil and gas present were “not sufficient to warrant further exploration” (Koch, 2015, para. 8). Thus, Shell recently halted all Arctic exploration activities indefinitely. Shell is not the only company that has tried and failed to utilize the Arctic oil reserves. Exxon was also forced to halt Arctic operations due to high costs and low profits (Koch, 2015). Ice-resistant pipelines and the facilities necessary for drilling operations are extremely expensive (IAOGP, 2013). In order for the costs of transportation and construction to be worthwhile, the prospective oil and natural gas fields would need to be larger than the equivalent of 500 million barrels of oil (EIA, n.d., para. 9). In addition, Arctic resources are mostly present in the form of natural gas and natural gas liquid, which are more expensive than oil to ship over long distances. Findings show that shale beds that are currently being developed may be able to produce anywhere from “5,000 to 16,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas” (EIA, n.d., para. 54). The possibility that such large quantities of an important resource already exists is good news for the Arctic. Because of the costs associated with finding and developing Arctic resources, these existing  “significantly defer the future development of Arctic natural gas resources” (EIA, n.d., para. 54).

Another factor to be considered is the danger of drilling in such a volatile environment (EIA, n.d.). The Arctic is considered a dangerous area to search for oil due to the difficulties posed by the landscape, which is covered in ice for much of the year. This additional risk means that the drilling set-up process would take longer than the preparations for drilling in other parts of the world (EIA, n.d.). The process involves the development of offshore drilling platforms, rigs, and the transportation of people and materials via shipping routes. The presence of ice floes “can damage offshore facilities, while also hindering the shipment of personnel, materials, equipment, and oil for long time periods” (EIA, n.d., para. 25). The remoteness of this locale also means that if an oil spill were to occur, any response would be delayed by several weeks, even during a period of minimal ice-cover (WWF, n.d.). Risks of major oil spills are increasing in the Russian Arctic, and Reeves et al. (2014) projected that by between 2020 and 2030, over 700 transit ships laden with oil are expected to pass between the Pechora Basin and Murmansk, Russia every year (p. 382). According to Reeves et al. (2014), “it is undeniable that risks of major accidents are increasing in the Russian Arctic” (p. 382). Similarly, a government report released by the United States claims that over a projected seventy-seven year period of drilling, there is a 75% chance of a large oil spill (Koch, 2015, para. 24).

In addition to the expense and risk associated with responding to a large oil spill, the environment itself would not be able to bounce back from such an incident they way temperate areas would. According to the World Wildlife Fund (n.d.), the Arctic region would take longer than other regions to recover from a spill due to the shorter periods of productivity and minimal solar exposure. Contrary to the results found by Hylland et al. (2008) and Trefry et al. (2013), Reeves et al. (2014) found that drilling results in negative impacts on organisms due to oil contamination, seismic noises and other factors.

Although offshore development has the potential to provide Arctic communities with income, ecotourism is emerging as a more viable source of income. The increases in tourism and the revenue it generates can be seen in many countries in the Arctic Circle. In the past ten years, Reeves et al. (2014) cites the increase in the presence of cruise ships and private vessels passing through the Northwest Passage. Since 1999 Norwegian cruises have become an increasingly popular form of tourism, and the number of passengers more than doubled over this time period (Reeves et al., 2014, p. 381). According to the Resource Development Council (n.d.),  “tourism is the second-largest private sector employer, and accounts for one in eight Alaskan jobs” (para. 8). As of 2013, Alaskan tourism brought in $2.42 billion annually, including income from those employed by tourist services (Resource Development Council, n.d., para. 7).

While there are potential economic benefits to offshore oil drilling, there are also associated negative impacts. The processes of offshore drilling and the transport of oil to and from oil rigs can have negative impacts on marine ecosystems, wildlife, and the human communities that rely on them.

The harsh Arctic climate creates an environment that few creatures can survive in. The climate is cold, and there is little plant life present because of the nutrient poor soils and the low angle of the sun at Arctic latitudes (IAOGP, 2013). Many Arctic species are endemic to this region, meaning that they cannot be found anywhere else in the world (IAOGP, 2013). These species have specific adaptations that allow them to survive in this environment, and these specific adaptations are not applicable to any other climate conditions. As a result of these characteristics, there is a lower species diversity in the Arctic than in tropical or temperate climates. As such, the Arctic species are generally more dependent on the continued presence of one another for survival (IAOGP, 2013).

Algae and phytoplankton are the Arctic’s primary producers, and during the twenty-four hour periods of light in the summer, the edges of ice floes are home to large algal blooms. These organisms comprise the lowest trophic level, meaning they “form the basis of the food web” (IAOGP, 2013, p. 32) and they are eaten by primary consumers such as zooplankton. Larval, juvenile and some adult fish feed on zooplankton, as do some species of whales. Seals and walruses prey on Arctic fish, some species of crustaceans, and even jellyfish. Polar bears and killer whales are the top predators in the Arctic, meaning they consume other large predators such as pinnipeds (IAOGP, 2013). Due to the lack of trophic diversity in this region, species are dependent upon a small variety of other species to provide them with the necessary energy to survive (IAOGP, 2013). Thus, the removal of any one species would be deleterious to the food web as a whole. 

A flow chart showing complex marine trophic interactions.

A flow chart showing complex marine trophic interactions.

For example, if something happened to decrease the population of zooplankton, then there would not be enough food available for the pelagic organisms, and their population would also decrease. This would then also lead to a decrease in population of seals and walruses because their food supply would be depleted, and eventually polar bears would also experience a decrease in population (Lee, 2016, para. 4). A similar effect can be observed in the processes of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Biomagnification is a process that occurs as a contaminant passes from one trophic level to another, whereas bioaccumulation is the process of a contaminant building up within a specific individual (Whalefish, 2014). These are both important processes to note when examining the impacts of offshore Arctic oil drilling.

Studies show that chronic leakages from oil rigs in the Arctic can cause contamination of sediments and organisms living nearby. Edge et al. (2016) studied the impacts of barite, a mineral consisting of barium sulfate, contamination in deep-water sponges from chronic oil rig leakages and drilling muds. Edge et al. (2016) found that exposure to barite caused cellular toxicity in deep-water sponges, as a result of the metal contaminants associated with this element. If contaminants from oil drilling in the Arctic can be accrued by marine organisms, then it is very likely that biomagnification and bioaccumulation will occur. For example, if an organism is contaminated, that contaminant is held within the tissues of its body. When a different organism consumes the contaminated organism, the contaminant passes to the consumer (Whalefish, 2014). Larger consumers generally need to eat many smaller organisms in order to get enough nutrients. If all of the smaller organisms a consumer eats are contaminated, then the consumer accrues a much larger amount of contamination than any one of the smaller organisms had (Whalefish, 2014). This is the process of biomagnification, and it continues up the food chain and can become toxic to higher trophic level consumers.

The presence of oil contaminants in marine organisms is a health concern for humans because of  biomagnification and bioaccumulation (National Geographic, 2004). Humans are in the highest trophic level, and when we consume fish or any other larger organisms we will accrue all of the built up contaminants in our bodies (Whalefish, 2014). In accordance with bioaccumulation, the more contaminated fish we eat, the levels of contamination in our own bodies will continue to increase, and could eventually reach toxic levels and cause health problems. This is especially an issue for local  Arctic communities. According to National Geographic, the Inuit people rely heavily on walruses, whales, and seals as a source of food (National Geographic, 2004). These predatory organisms contain lots of fatty tissue, which holds contamination in very well. This means that the Inuit people are consuming high amounts of contamination in their diets, which can cause health problems (National Geographic, 2004). Many of the contaminants are endocrine disruptors, which disrupt normal hormone activity. This can cause developmental issues, neurological problems, skeletal abnormalities, and weakened immune systems (National Geographic, 2004).

Fish are an abundant prey species in the Arctic, and fill an important trophic level in this ecosystem. However, Arctic fish also serve as a human food source and “Arctic fisheries are among the most productive fisheries in the world” (IAOGP, 2013, p. 34). Historically important Arctic commercial fish species include various types of cod, capelin, herring, plaice and halibut (IAOGP, 2013). Commercial fisheries for shrimp and Greenland halibut are currently growing in Canada’s Baffin Bay, while “substantial commercial fisheries exist in the Russian portions of the Barents Sea” (Reeves et al., 2014, p. 382). These Russian fisheries focus on Atlantic cod, haddock, Greenland halibut and capelin. Norwegian and Russian waters are also home to a king crab fishery that generates a large amount of revenue (Reeves et al., 2014).

Unfortunately, effects of offshore drilling for oil are shown to negatively impact these commercial fisheries (Gomez & Green, 2013). According to the European Union, after any sort of “offshore accident”, the definition of which includes oil spills, authorities close the local fisheries as a “precautionary measure to preserve public health” (Gomez & Green, 2013, p. 31). In 1993, a large oil spill of 85,000 tons occurred off the southern coast of Shetland, Scotland. For two years, forty percent of the grounds where fishermen harvested shellfish were shut down, and “25% of total production of farmed salmon was severely tainted” (Gomez & Green, 2013, p. 33). While these fisheries are closed, commercial fishermen are temporarily out of a job, and in many cases these individuals have no way to subsidize their income (Gomez & Green, 2013). An oil spill can also be responsible for shifts in public willingness to consume fish caught in the area the spill occurred. The Shetland oil spill received worldwide publicity, which resulted in a decrease in seafood consumption and major economic losses for the area’s commercial fisheries (Gomez & Green, 2013). .

Arctic organisms are also negatively affected by the presence of crude oil in the water (Sturve et al., 2006). According to Gomez & Green (2013), toxins from oil spills cause many fish to die quickly, and others are “affected by intoxication in the following days or months” (p. 32). Some of these toxins include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and alkylphenols, which are organic compounds found in fuel. PAHs are present in crude oil, and there is an increase in aquatic PAH levels resulting from offshore oil and gas extraction processes (Hylland, 2007). Exposure to PAH and alkylphenols causes a decrease in an important cod antioxidant. As this antioxidant decreases in an individual cod, it becomes more vulnerable to harmful DNA alterations (Sturve et al., 2006). These alterations occur when cancer-causing chemicals (such as those present in oil) bind to cod DNA (Hylland et al., 2008).

Other species that serve important economic and aesthetic purposes are also affected by offshore drilling. According to Reeves et al. (2014), chronic leakages from oil rigs and acoustics associated with drilling negatively impact Arctic cetacean species such as narwhal, beluga whales, and bowhead whales. These charismatic megafauna draw people from all over the world to polar countries to embark on whale watch tours, which are important sources of tourism revenue for countries such as Iceland (WDC, 2016). The Shell oil company revealed that in their plan to drill in the Canadian Arctic, they will expose 50,000 ringed seals and 5,000 bowhead and gray whales to both continuous and pulsating drilling noises (Hackman, 2012, para. 2). These noises are invasive enough that they are classified as forms of harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (Hackman, 2012). Cetaceans use sound to communicate with each other, interact with their environment, and find prey. Drilling noises emitted at a similar frequency could disrupt this, and loud anthropogenic noises could cause irreversible hearing damage (IAOGP, 2013). This is deleterious to whales, because they communicate with each other almost solely using auditory cues. As a Greenpeace research specialist said “‘A deaf whale is a dead whale’” (Hackman, 2012, para. 12). As a way to escape the painful sounds from drilling, whales may avoid normal feeding and breeding grounds. According to Reeves et al. (2014), bowhead whales “exhibit avoidance responses to ship, seismic, and other noise at low (received) levels at distances of 30-50 km” (p. 377). The avoidance of historically important mating areas would result in fewer whales mating and reproducing, which would have devastating effects on an already endangered bowhead whale population (Hackman, 2012). Noise from seismic activity will also potentially alter the migratory routes of narwhals. Reeves et al. (2014) observed narwhals changing the direction of their movements in response to the presence of large ships located 30-50 kilometers away (p. 378). This migration change increases the danger of large groups of narwhals becoming trapped in the icier regions of the Arctic, resulting in a mass mortality event (Reeves et al., 2014).  Similarly, studies in the Canadian Arctic show that the noise ships make when they break through ice can reach belugas up to 35-50 kilometers away (p. 379). Reeves et al. (2014) observed the belugas moving quickly in the opposite direction, and state that these whales make specific alarm vocalizations when they detect a ship as far as 80 kilometers away (p. 379). In addition to the danger that drilling sounds poses to cetaceans, if the oil itself came in contact with a bowhead whale’s tooth plates (known as baleen), their ability to filter feed phytoplankton from the water would be inhibited (Reeves et al., 2014). These life history changes would result in a decrease in Arctic cetacean populations. This would cause revenue that northern countries receive from whale watch tours to fall (WDC, 2016). 

Drilling noises  can damage whales' hearing permanently.

Drilling noises can damage whales’ hearing permanently.

In addition to economic losses, the damage to whale populations comes at a social price as well. The practice of whaling is an Inuit cultural event, however it is also “about survival in a town where supermarket food costs are astonishingly high” (The Guardian, n.d., para. 37). Many indigenous, isolated Arctic communities rely on whale meat to survive (Hackman, 2012), and the diminishing number of whales in the area could lead to the starvation of many people. BP and other oil companies have been conducting drilling operations in the Alaskan Prudhoe Bay for many years. The presence of drilling has a direct impact on many local communities who rely on the ocean to feed their families. The health of the ocean is directly tied to the health of humans who live beside it (The Guardian, n.d). A resident of an Inupiat community adjacent to Prudhoe Bay has noticed serious health problems arising in her community, and other areas near where oil extraction is happening. These health problems include rising cancer rates, increased sensitivity to chemicals, and increased suicide rates (The Guardian, n.d.). The same thing that provides these people with sustenance is also killing them, and many inuit people have taken firm stands against the practice of offshore drilling (The Guardian, n.d.).

To mitigate and prevent negative impacts to the environment and its wildlife, President Obama of the United States signed into law a five-year program responsible for banning oil drilling in the Alaskan Beaufort and Chukchi Seas (2016). In order to prevent harmful impacts to fragile Arctic ecosystems and wildlife as a result of offshore oil drilling, the Arctic Drilling Ban should be extended past its end date of 2020, and made into a permanent ban.

We propose the adoption of similar ban practices by other countries in the Arctic Circle such as Canada, Russia and Norway, and also propose that the U.S. ban continues indefinitely. Oil in the Arctic is neither as plentiful nor as easily accessible as originally thought (Koch, 2015), and as such it would not be economically or environmentally beneficial to develop the area. Oceana’s LeVine said oil companies’ decision to forfeit Arctic drilling rights shows that “there is no compelling reason to schedule new lease sales” (Dlouhy, 2016, para. 19).

Drilling in the Arctic also poses potential health and economic risks to humans as a result of the contamination of food sources (National Geographic, 2004). As such, the economic and health risks associated with offshore drilling coupled with the lack of access to resources in the Arctic outweigh the benefits of drilling. With no real incentive remaining to drill in the Arctic, it follows naturally that the pristine Arctic environment and its inhabitants should be protected by drilling bans.

In order to continue moving forward towards a more sustainable future, the utilization of fossil fuels needs to be replaced with renewable energy sources and practices. The future of oil drilling in the Arctic is incomparable to the amount of irreversible damage it will cause to the pristine Arctic ecosystem. Looking ahead towards future policies and regulations companies  such as ConocoPhillips, Statoil, Iona Energy Inc., and Italy’s Eni SpA combined terminated a total of eighty-two leases in the Chukchi Sea (McKibben, 2016, para.8). In order to prevent future drilling and further harm to the Arctic ecosystem and its wildlife, there must be a halt of all fossil fuel exploration activities indefinitely. With supporting history from previous Arctic drilling activity from major petroleum companies, they themselves have concluded that the combination of the frigid weather conditions, lack of sufficient oil, and environmental damage is not  worth the consequence for such little return (Koch, 2015). In Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, he states that if Russia’s Lukoil and America’s ExxonMobil burned all of their inventories of oil and gas, more than 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere (McKibben, 2013, para. 13). Along with the smaller companies, there is a total of five times as much oil, coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn in our atmosphere (McKibben, 2013, para.13). Time, money, and effort should be shifted away from Arctic oil drilling, and towards a more sustainable future. This will be more beneficial to society in the long run, and  will leave the pristine Arctic environment as beautiful as ever.


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