Drilling in the Arctic is a risky business. So it’s a good thing that the only company with a license to drill in the Arctic isn’t comparing the whole endeavour to hanging out in Vegas and trying your hand at shooting craps.
Oh wait. That’s exactly what they’re doing.
Bill Gammell, head of Cairn Energy, has been delighting the Daily Telegraph by describing Arctic exploration as "like going into a casino" (only with more polar bears). "It's high risk,” he says, “but you do everything you can to minimise that risk through technical expertise and having a team that has made great leaps and is hopefully going to be successful again."
Phew, that’s reassuring. It sounds like they’re aware of the potential disaster and are taking the necessary precautions. Except that Sir Bill isn’t talking about the likelihood of an Arctic leak or the problems of trying to clean a pod of oil-covered whales. He’s talking about the risk of failing to find any oil and the damage that would do to their share value.
Last year Cairn managed to drill a handful of shallow wells, but didn’t discover any oil. Not that that's discouraged them: Sir Bill splashed out on a £3m house, and Cairn’s directors have reaped a windfall from selling their shares. It seems no matter where the roulette wheel stops, the house always wins.
This year they’ve got bolder, riskier plans: heading off to Greenland and drilling four new wells. These aren’t like the shallow well they drilled last time: they’re deep wells, 1,500m deep. Cairn wants to drill as far into the earth as the Deepwater Horizon, but in the Arctic, not the Gulf of Mexico.
An oil spill in that environment wouldn’t just be a disaster. It would cause irreparable damage to an untouched landscape; damage which can’t be stopped by bunging a handful of golfballs down the pipe and hoping for the best. It’s really hard to stop an oil leak when you’re dodging icebergs and only have a few months to work before the leak – and the millions of gallons on oil pouring into the Arctic Sea – disappears for the winter under several metres of sea ice.
This isn’t about solving the oil crisis. It takes between ten and fifteen years to bring a new well online. Even if Cairn struck gold tomorrow, we’d be waiting a decade before the first drops reached British petrol pumps.
Instead, like the red-eyed gambler who just can't quit, Cairn Energy is placing insane bets on hitting the jackpot in the Arctic. The result is keeping us hooked on dirty, dangerous energy sources, when we could be supporting cleaner technologies and cutting energy demand.