Permafrost Melt Makes Arctic Oil Drilling Even More Dangerous

Permafrost Melt Makes Arctic Oil Drilling Even More Dangerous

After a gas leak at ConocoPhillips’ huge Alaska oil production facility, Alpine Field, many are now asking whether climate change is making oil drilling more dangerous. The leak, which began on March 4th of this year, emitted 7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas within the first five days -- that’s equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of over 3,000 cars.

New analysis suggests that the gas leak was a result of permafrost thaw. The heat generated by fracking melted a layer of permafrost to a depth of 1,000 feet, which then allowed gas escape to the surface. This permafrost melt created pathways through which gas could escape to the surface from other wells, too, endangering the Native Village of Nuisqut and the surrounding ecosystem.

As the federal government assesses the safety and environmental impact of a new massive ConocoPhillips oil development proposed in Alaska, the Willow Project, the intensifying leakage threat has become an important consideration.

"The leak demonstrates that ConocoPhillips cannot guarantee the safe operation of oil development projects in the region,” a coalition of environmental groups wrote in a letter to the agency in April.

Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research: Permafrost | The thawing carbon storage, December 10, 2020.

PBS: Why both climate activists and the oil industry are unhappy with Biden’s new drilling leases, April 18, 2022.

Earth Stories: The Devastation Of The Alaskan Pipeline | Ice Race (Documentary), August 31, 2022.

Why This Matters

The ConocoPhillips leak shows that the risks associated with oil drilling are amplified by climate change. Fossil fuels threaten public health -- this year’s record-breaking heatwaves racked up huge death tolls across the world, as polluted air continues to claim the lives of around nine million annually.

The long-term effects of drilling are just as deadly -- senior citizens living near oil wells are 2.5% more likely to die early than those who don't. And it’s not just crude oil that poses a risk -- oil-based products like petrochemicals and plastics also threaten human and environmental health. Recent research indicates that 40% of fossil fuels available for extraction from existing oil and coal fields must remain untouched to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Government officials are starting to take action. After calling fossil fuel drilling "delusional,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres proposed a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies, from which proceeds would be distributed to countries suffering the most from climate change. Domestically, a Louisiana district court struck down air permits for a proposed $9.4 billion plastics plant for violating environmental rules.

Euronews: UN Secretary-General says the climate crisis is placing half of humanity in 'the danger zone’, June 14, 2022.

Guardian: 'Polluters must pay' | UN secretary general calls for global windfall tax on energy companies, September 20, 2022.

Now This: Why Resuming Oil and Gas Leasing is Bad for the Environment, October 24, 2021.

Center For American Progress: Oil and Ice | The Risks of Drilling in Alaska's Arctic Ocean, August 19, 2012

A Ticking "Carbon Bomb”

Temperatures in the Arctic are going up four times faster than the global warming average, meaning the region is increasingly vulnerable. Permafrost melt could cause the emission of 550 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2100 -- that’s up to 40% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.

Thaw is also threatening the communities that live above permafrost. In Russia, for example, permafrost makes up 65% of the country's landmass. If significant melting occurs, the country could incur $97 billion in infrastructure damage by 2050. In the Arctic, permafrost thaw is already creating massive sinkholes.

Collaborative research effort Permafrost Pathways is currently working to develop strategies to combat permafrost thaw: "The sooner we incorporate permafrost thaw emissions into our strategies to address the climate crisis, the better equipped we will be to limit future harm,” the project explains.

The Agenda with Steve Paikin: The Agenda with Steve Paikin
A Sleeping Giant | Why Permafrost is a Climate Threat, January 17, 2022.

Alaska Public Media: Tracking permafrost thaw will help Alaska communities adapt to climate change | Alaska Insight, April 21, 2022.

ABC: Siberia’s rapidly melting permafrost is changing the landscape, October 25, 2021.

BBC: Scientists say vast areas of Siberia are thawing with "devastating consequences," September 18, 2020.

Grantham Imperial: Dr Friederike Otto speaks to CNN's Connect the World about the extreme heat, 18 July 2022, July 19, 2022.

IEA: A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use, March 18, 2022.

TED: Fossil fuel companies know how to stop global warming. Why don't they? | Myles Allen, December 4, 2020.