In the thick of the action. Photo by Trip Jennings.

Seattle “kayaktivists” protesting Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic in May. Photo by Trip Jennings.

The word came down earlier this week that Royal Dutch Shell is leaving the Arctic. For a variety of reasons, oil exploration in the far north has proved to be too much for Shell to handle, at least, “for the foreseeable future.” After $7 billion in prep costs and operating expenses, and drilling a single well almost a mile deep, Shell is pulling up stakes, capping the well and abandoning the program. For now.

After all the brouhaha and protests earlier this summer, this announcement may come as a bit of a surprise to some. And, while it’s encouraging in some ways and it's tempting to celebrate, it is also important to look at some of the likely reasons why this is happening now and to evaluate how likely it is that it will all come up again sometime in the future.


One of the purported discoveries that Shell made this summer was that the oil and gas reserves in their chosen drilling location did not seem to be as extensive as they were first thought to be. In its official statement, the company said that it has found indications of oil and gas, but that "…these are not sufficient to warrant further exploration." Marvin Odum, director of Shell Upstream America, adds: "This is a clearly disappointing exploration outcome for this part of the basin." Hard to accept, I guess, going after what you think is a multi-billion-dollar diamond and finding it to be less shiny than it first seemed.

And let’s not forget, Shell was operating in a difficult environment, possibly the most difficult environment on earth. We’re talking waves of 70 feet, storms that last for weeks, and a remote quality to the area that probably had some workers crying in their bunks at night. The Chukchi Sea is not a place for the faint of heart and it’s a damned tough place to make a living, even if you’re one of the richest companies in the world. The fossil fuel that is there is secreted beneath some of the roughest water on earth and it is a desperate soul, or corporation, that goes there in search of a buck.

And then there are the kayaktivists, the intrepid souls who took to the waters of Seattle and Portland, acting to form a human blockade, slowing the passage of the rig and support vessels on their journey to the drilling grounds. Hundreds of people took to the water in craft of all kinds in a stunning visual rebuke to an industry's greed and shortsightedness. It is hard to measure exactly how much of an impact they had, but there is no question that this issue awakened what had been a disorganized and largely silent community. The demonstrations that took place were powerful events and received extensive coverage, not only in this country, but around the world.

The bottom line, however, as is so often the case, comes down to the money involved. The decision that Shell made to leave the Arctic at this time was an economic decision above all else. Sure, these other factors were taken into consideration, but the overriding concern for Shell – as with any corporation – is the money. In the words of one industry analyst, “The Arctic is a very risky place to explore and very expensive to develop, so there are probably easier places (for Shell) to go.” At the moment, Shell and the other companies dabbling in Arctic production schemes have decided that there are less costly targets for exploration and after this first well under-achieved, they are moving on.

But this is something that can certainly change. If we wait long enough, and if we don’t do more to advance alternative energy during this time of depressed global oil prices, there will come a time when the Arctic is once again being looked at for serious development purposes. If enough time passes and enough of the rest of the world's supply is used up, that oil that is not worth developing now will become the next logical step. The USGS estimates that the Arctic holds about 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and as much as 13 percent of the remaining oil left on the planet. Shell’s departure at this time is something to be thankful for, but it should in no way be confused with a final victory for environmentalists.

This retreat, temporary as it may be, provides additional time to make the case for long-lasting preservation in the Arctic. The voices that were raised in opposition to the drilling need to continue to be heard as we move toward a more sustainable future. Any long-term strategy for dealing with the effects of climate change depends on leaving some oil and other fossil fuel deposits in the ground. Any kayaktivist could tell you that.

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Ken Campbell is an accomplished paddler, filmmaker and conservationist. Last year, he completed a 150-mile journey up the Washington coast in a a kayak that was constructed out of discarded single-use plastic bottles.