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Shell's drilling for oil in the Arctic, Alaska, USA


The conflict circles on offshore oil prospecting and drilling 150 miles from the Alaskan city Barrow. The prospection was made by Shell Oil Company which during its ongoing project investing 7bn dollars without success [1]. They stopped the prospection when they considered the crude oil prices too low, falling down to $45 per barrel in June 2014 from its peak of $107 [2]. By March-April 2017, there is a renewed attempt to open the area to drilling. The conflict first arose when Shell submitted its “Chukchi Sea Exploration Plan” to the Minerals Management Service (MMS), predecessor to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Shell identified 3 different location for prospection where Burger was one of them. The Minerals Management Service did an environmental Assessment and issued a Finding of No Significant Impact in 2009 which gave a go to Shell Oil Company to do the prospection. They delayed their project to wait out the opinion storm of the Gulf of Mexico incident but picked it up again in 2011. The plan was to drill 6 different wells at the Burger site, one well was drilled at a depth of 1,505 feet and then abandoned [3].

According to The US Geological Survey the Arctic may contain about 13% of the worlds undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of the natural gases, which is why the interest was awoken [4].

This did not go down without resistance from civil society, NGOs and indigenous groups. Even though Shell argued that they would clean up any possible spill, NGOs backed by scientists argued that it would be impossible since there is a lack of equipment for cleaning up oil from under ice. The drilling could also disturb fishes and other animals which WWF describes as “[...]cornerstones of the subsistence and cultural livelihoods of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic” [5]. This is the reason why the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents 160,000 indigenous peoples from Alaska, through Canada and Greenland to Russia said that this was a central issue to them [6].  A group of activists, both from Greenpeace and other environmental activists, in Portland, Oregon did a blockade on kayaks and hanging from a bridge to blockade key vessels of Shell's Arctic drilling [7]. Different local Greenpeace organizations carried out other actions against Shell.  Another reason why WWF and other organizations raises this as an issue is ocean noise. Since wales and other mammals navigate through sound, offshore oil drilling can cause great confusion, injury or death.

In 2016 the Obama administration used the law “Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act” to protect large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, coordinated with the Canadian administration, which was a great victory for the environmental movement [8].  Alaska’s two republican senators introduced a new bill in April of 2017 to undo Obama's restriction for drilling, so the question of drilling at the site of Burger may once again be of immediate interest [9].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Shell's drilling for oil in the Arctic, Alaska, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Alaska
Location of conflict:Barrow, Alaska
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Natural Gas

Project Details and Actors

Project details

One of the six planned wells was drilled by Shell to a depth of 1,505 feet. Low price of oil and gas, and opposition by Greenpeace and the Inuit population led to the project being abandoned. There was new legislastion banning drilling, under President Obama. However, by March 2017, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said President Donald Trump is interested in opening up new coastal waters for oil and gas drilling and reversing Obama-era policies that restrict energy development in Alaska [10].

Project area:350
Level of Investment:7,000,000,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:05/05/2009
Company names or state enterprises:Shell Oil Company from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Minerals Management Service (MMS), predecessor to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
Government of Alaska.
Government of the United States.
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Greenpeace.
Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Development of a network/collective action
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Noise pollution
Potential: Global warming, Oil spills, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Other Environmental impacts, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Other Environmental impactsPotential pollution of the ocean.
Health ImpactsPotential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Other Health impacts
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:New legislation
Project cancelled
Withdrawal of company/investment
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The project was stopped because of low gas and oil prices and lack of profitability. There was also social movement's resistance. A new legislation stopping drilling was enacted under Obama, probably because of the environmental movement. The issue is still open in 2017, with Republican senators from Alaska introduced a new bill in April of 2017 to undo restriction for drilling.

Sources & Materials

[5] WWF, Arctic oil and gas

[9] The Hill (2017), Alaska senators push bill to allow Arctic drilling

[8] The Washington post (2016), President Obama bans oil drilling in large areas of Atlantic and Arctic oceans

[6] The Guradian (2015) , “The New Cold war”

[7] The Guardian (2015), Activists hang from bridge in Portland to block Shell's Arctic vessel

[2] Reuters (2015), Alaska to be hit by Shell's decision to halt oil exploration: Moody's

[3] Alaska Outer Continental Shelf Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc. Revised Outer Continental Shelf Lease Exploration Plan Chukchi Sea, Alaska (2015)

[1] The Guadian(2015), Shell abandons Alaska Arctic drilling

[4] The Guradian (2015) , “The New Cold war”

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[10] Bloomberg,Opening Arctic for Drilling Is Trump Priority, Key Senator Says. By Jennifer A Dlouhy and Catherine Traywick. 10 March 2017. Senator Lisa Murkowski said President Donald Trump is interested in opening up new coastal waters for oil and gas drilling and reversing Obama-era policies that restrict energy development in Alaska.

Alaska’s Senators Discuss Opening the Arctic with Trump and Zinke, 14 March 2017

Meta information

Contributor:Anna Bartfai, Lina Dahlman, Sölve Stenberg (Lund University)
Last update14/04/2017



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