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MUN and the Arctic Oil Frontier

By: | April 1, 2015

Memorial’s strategic investments in Arctic oil pose environmental risks in the region and to the planet

John Sandlos
The Sustain Ability is an ongoing series exploring issues and ideas related to making Newfoundland and Labrador ecologically and economically sustainable.

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According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre, in February 2015 Arctic sea ice hit a record low for its maximum extent in winter. The International Panel on Climate Change has attributed diminishing Arctic ice to global warming and warned that most of the world's fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avoid warming greater than two degrees Celcisus. Going above this limit could push us past a tipping point and set into effect series' of catastrophic weather events that would threaten our ability to sustain human life on Earth. Meanwhile, Memorial University is positioning itself as a leader in researching and developing the technology and expertise necessary to access what could well be the world's largest undeveloped oil and gas reserves. Photo by Gerard Van der Leun.

In late November 2013 the Russian courts released on bail the last of the “Arctic 30” Greenpeace activists who protested the operation of the first oil rig in Arctic waters. With permanent sea ice rapidly warming due to climate change, the petroleum industry and circumpolar governments have declared the dawn of a new fossil fuel boom as an estimated 30 per cent of global gas reserves and 13 per cent of oil reserves are unlocked for development. While Greenpeace’s protest was focused on specific safety concerns and spill risks associated with the Prirazlomnaya rig, activists have also pointed to Arctic oil’s potential for severely worsening an already warming climate, where the worst effects are already being felt in polar regions.

Closer to home, Memorial University is working with government and industry to place Newfoundland and Labrador at the centre of the promised Arctic oil boom. Government and private sector money have poured into the university to support the development of technologies critical to oil and gas developments in cold ocean environments. The Faculty of Engineering has been a big beneficiary: Husky Energy has provided $2.5 million to support a Chair in Oil and Gas Research with a focus on Arctic environments; Wood Group (an oil and gas technology firm) recently announced $500,000 to renew support for a Chair in Arctic and Harsh Environment Engineering.

Memorial also hosts facilities for C-CORE, an engineering research and development firm that is defined as a Separately Incorporated Entity (SIE) within the university. In turn, C-CORE hosts LOOKNorth, a Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research that received $7.1 million in federal funding to promote research in applied technologies for Arctic resource development. In 2011 C-CORE also received $12.5 million from the Hibernia and Terra Nova projects to establish the Centre for Arctic Resource Development (CARD) at Memorial, a research organization devoted to finding more cost-effective technologies for developing Arctic oil and gas projects that are currently too expensive due to physical or environmental challenges.

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador contributed substantial sums of public money to these projects: $4 million to CARD through the provincially funded Research Development Corporation (RDC), and $2 million to LookNORTH split evenly between RDC and the Ministry of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development. RDC also maintains a funding program called ArcticTech, where businesses or Memorial academics may obtain funding for technology innovation related to Arctic resource development.

Taken together, these activities send a clear message: the Arctic is the next big thing in oil and gas production, so Newfoundland needs to mobilize resources and brain power to promote development and get in on the ground floor of a potential bonanza.

 Nothing less than the future of the planet and our ability to inhabit it are at stake, but still university and provincial government officials describe the Arctic oil and gas boom as wholly desirable and inevitable.

But what about the potential consequences of Arctic oil development? A serious spill in the Arctic Ocean akin to the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, for example, could have catastrophic impacts as oil becomes trapped under sea ice, making clean-up efforts almost impossible. Combine with this the fact that oil breaks down only very slowly in cold water, and any spill from a tanker, offshore rig, or pipeline could have long-term environmental consequences for the Arctic marine environment.

True, enhanced technological development may help to reduce these risks, but it is highly unlikely that extensive systems of pumping and transporting oil over long distance will ever be risk free.

Perhaps less tangible, but no less worrying, is the idea that monster oil and gas finds in the Arctic will worsen climate change in a region where it is already showing its most visible signs.

Here is the supreme irony: contained in the promise of Arctic oil is also the potential for the region’s demise, as climate change causes rapid and unpredictable changes to marine and terrestrial environments in the region. Maybe you don’t trust the “Arctic 30” on this one, but even more mainstream sources such as Globe and Mail business columnist Eric Reguly (citing the International Energy Agency) recently suggested that as much as two-thirds of global oil, gas and coal reserves would have to remain in the ground if atmospheric CO2 is to be stabilized at the 450 parts per million climate scientists suggest will be necessary to limit global warming to the catastrophe threshold of two degrees. As the last untouched oil and gas frontier, surely the case can be made that Arctic oil ought to be among those fossil fuels designated unburnable for the foreseeable future.

With so much new research money floating to Memorial University and its affiliates, one would expect much discussion, debate, and critical analysis of the benefits and costs of Arctic oil and gas development. One might also hope that there would be significant investments of research dollars in the renewable energy and conservation revolution that must inevitably come if we are to avoid potentially disastrous warming of the global climate. Nothing less than the future of the planet and our ability to inhabit it are at stake, but still university and provincial government officials describe the Arctic oil and gas boom as wholly desirable and inevitable.

Photo by haven't the slightest / FLICKR.

The work being done at Memorial University (MUN Engineering Building pictured above) is “world class, particularly in oil and gas exploration and production in Arctic and harsh environments,” MUN President Gary Kachanoski recently said. Photo by haven’t the slightest / FLICKR.

At the December 2013 announcement of renewed funding for the Wood Group Chair, Memorial President Gary Kachanoski stated that “this funding is a clear endorsement that the work being done at this institution is world class, particularly in oil and gas exploration and production in Arctic and harsh environments.”

The President might have added that this money, combined with other large-scale research investments, positions Memorial at the leading edge of an Arctic oil and gas development push that carries significant environmental risks on a local and global scale, with the potential to cause severe damage to marine ecosystems in the Arctic and intensify global climate change beyond what most scientists believe is sustainable.

Memorial and supporting governments have a public responsibility to support more than the technologies that will allow Arctic oil and gas development to proceed. They must also address the more difficult question of whether the Arctic oil boom should proceed in the first place.

John Sandlos is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Memorial University, where he conducts research on the impact of abandoned mines in northern Canada.

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