These days, the frontiers of oil exploration include the waters north of Alaska. Nobody knows how much energy is hidden beneath the Arctic waves. But oil companies want to find out.
A federal court blocked Royal Dutch Shell proposal to drill for oil in the Beaufort Sea, above Alaska's northern coast. But the company is still trying. And its story tells you a lot about the forces shaping the Arctic's future.
This summer, Shell assembled an entire fleet in an Alaskan harbor.
Crews were performing maintenance on a drill ship. It carries an oil derrick 190 feet high. That means it steams around with a tower taller than the Statue of Liberty, from its toes to its torch.
"This is the Frontier Discoverer. I would call it the state-of-the-art drilling rig, one of the very few that are capable of working in the Arctic today," says Vince Roes, who works on the ship, which has a reinforced hull.
Shell knows the Beaufort Sea because the company found oil in the same place two decades ago. The people on the drill ship then included Rick Fox, who now leads Shell's Alaska operation.
"I remember as a young man, standing out there and watching all the crystals of ice in the air, when the sun was out," Fox says. "It was just like zillions of lights, and dry, cold. I remember how peaceful it was. At times it was so still and quiet, especially when there was ice on the water. It is an amazing place, it is an amazing place.
Shell concluded the opportunity wasn't amazing enough — and it never exploited the offshore oil that it found years ago.
Today, the technology is better, the price of oil is higher, new oil reserves are less available. And Shell has reconsidered the Alaskan Arctic.
"We think it's a great frontier ...." Fox says. "The belief is that about 25 percent of the world's remaining reserves are in the Arctic. And I think it's a major play for us."
Even the climate seemed to be cooperating with that major play. Polar ice retreated this summer from the spot where Shell plans to explore for oil.
Shell would hardly need its reinforced hulls, or rented Russian icebreakers.
Which brings to mind a cartoon reprinted last month in the Anchorage Daily News. A man stands on an oil platform in Arctic waters.
"Now that fossil fuel use has melted the ice cap," he says, "we can drill for more fossil fuel!"
When Fox spotted that cartoon, he laughed and showed it to a colleague.
"You know, we were working out on the ice this past winter," Fox says. "Maybe there is a trend and less ice, but you still have years when — I was 15 miles offshore on a snow machine — and it was some big ice."
The Shell manager does acknowledge that Arctic summers are getting longer. Oil company ships have more time to explore before the winter ice returns.
But Shell did not get to drill this summer. The effects of climate change are more complicated than they might seem.
"The melting of the Arctic ice cap presents additional problems," says Deborah Williams, who leads a group called Alaska Conservation Solutions.
"You will have greater storms," she says. "You will have more conflict with endangered species, and you will have more conflict, I believe, with the people of the North, particularly the Inupiat people, who are already facing hardships associated with the global warming and the melting of the Arctic icecap."
Those conflicts with local people and animals help to explain why Shell's fleet did not reach the Beaufort Sea. It was blocked by a creature Fox noticed when he was drilling in that sea years ago.
"I remember seeing whales as well, and the beauty of that animal, just passing through that clear, clear blue water," Fox says.
Local people have hunted those whales for centuries. Whaling captains joined a lawsuit seeking to prevent Shell's drilling. A court stopped all activity while deciding if it should order a full environmental study.
It was by no means a given that local people would oppose an oil project. Many take a pragmatic approach to the industry, as you could see at a picnic in Barrow, Alaska.
The picnic was sponsored by BP, one of the major oil companies here. BP was celebrating 30 years of the Trans-Alaska pipeline — which brought jobs and money to the region.
Yet when Shell proposed offshore drilling, the local government joined the lawsuit against it. One of their lawyers says drilling noise, or an oil spill, could harm whales already stressed by global warming.
You sense the ambivalence of some Alaskans when you meet Ron Brower. He's a tribal elder, who was greeted at the picnic by an oil company vice president.
Brower has actually done work for a Shell contractor. Yet he says the climate is changing too rapidly to understand the possible problems with offshore drilling.
"Any oil spill would be disastrous to our natural food resources in the Arctic," Brower says.
Shell has never stopped working to ease such concerns. The company even ordered construction of a special ship. Crew members would stand by on this high-tech bridge, or control center, waiting to clean any spill.
Shell staffed that ship by hiring Alaskans, including Roland Rufus Iqtakluk Warrior. He's a whale hunter himself, and he says his neighbors oppose offshore drilling.
"They just don't want it to happen, don't want to compromise our hunting grounds," he says.
Even though he works for Shell, Warrior says his job puts him in a position to "hear and see what's happening and be able to bring up concerns from where I come from."
He's telling his employers about the importance of whale hunting. He's had time, since the federal court order left Shell's cleanup crew waiting at anchor.
That same order left Shell's Fox trying to figure out the next step.
"I am somewhat disappointed with the way this is turning out so far, and hopeful that we'll still find resolution, because we're still in the conversation," he says.
Shell remains eager to explore Arctic waters. And in this, it's not alone. There's not exactly a rush for Arctic oil — not yet.
But from Canada to Norway to Russia, companies are buying leases, or even starting to drill, for the wealth of the changing Arctic.
This series was produced by Tracy Wahl.