[A version of this piece first appeared in Salvage]
On 28 September 2015, Royal Dutch Shell – suddenly and without warning – announced their withdrawal from exploratory drilling in the Chuckchi Sea. This decision will cost them, depending on who you ask, somewhere between $4-8 billion in terms of money already spent or contractually committed. Many have found reason to celebrate this announcement – especially when it was followed a couple of days later by Alberta’s governor, Rachel Notley, declaring that there was no long-term future for the province or Canada as a whole to be found in the continued exploitation of the Alberta Tar Sands.
But for others, Shell’s press release – a bland technocratic utterance, an oleaginous misdirection, terse, wilfully oblique – was a cause for concern, a weird provocation.
What exactly has Shell done up there off the coast of Alaska? What have they found? Why are they not talking about it?
What haematophagic vegetal Thing from Another World did they accidentally defrost? What therianthropic congeries of cellular neo-liberalism? What ripe metaphor? What ravening alien maw?
How long until our skies are darkened by fleets of Nazi UFOs pouring out from the Hohlweltlehre’s Fourth Reich? How long until our lands are ravaged by their subhuman legions of Dero Sturmtruppen?
Did Shell really mistake that oozing nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence for oil? What rough shoggoth, its hour come around at last, is now slouching southwards to consume us? What Hyperborean sleeping abnormalities, what blasphemously surviving entities, have they disturbed? To the attention of what Elder Gods have their clumsy probings brought us?
Did they drill so deep into the crust that the Earth itself screamed?
Or have Shell, rather more mundanely, had a Mitchell-and-Webb epiphany? Did they stare into the abyss and find themselves staring back? Have they realised that they are the bad guys? Are they going to apologise? Are they going to shut down their chunk of the oil industry and devote future revenues from green energy to repairing the environmental destruction for which they are responsible? Does this retreat from the arctic mark the start of a new era that recognises the unsustainability of development? An era in which existing development will be radically redistributed?
This is not Armageddon. No plucky oilmen and hot-doggin’ roughnecks are going to divert the extinction event coming our way.
This is not The Abyss. Deep-sea drilling operations are not going to uncover some watery alien messiah.
This is not even On Deadly Ground. No possible blend of motivational-poster mysticism, misappropriated indigenous culture, pony tails and lardy kung fu can stop the oil companies.
Shell is clear on this. Like recent similar withdrawals by Exxon and Chevron, this is a temporary, strategic move based on the several variables. Their main concerns at this point are ‘the high costs associated with the project, and the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska’. Their announcement must therefore be seen as a statement of intent: they will lobby and exert influence to get those regulations revised in their favour; they will develop and/or await the technologies that will sufficiently lower the cost of drilling, extraction and transportation; they will wait for global warming to make the Arctic more conducive; they will rely upon – and manipulate – oil demand and oil scarcity; and then they will return.
They say they will ‘cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future’. As if they do not foresee this one. As if this is not their plan.
Notley talks about weaning Alberta – and Canada – off fossil fuels over the next century. A timescale which, however well-intentioned, however inadequate, might just coincide with the oil in the tar sands running out anyway, as peak oil gives way to oil depletion.
So while this weird flight from the icy seas might seem like a turning point in the story of peak oil, it is, in truth, more about piqued oil.
The monotonous self-serving corporate drone of Shell’s statement is designed to conceal only one thing: they are just a little bit miffed.
But rest assured. They were already regrouping, strategising, shifting resources and priorities before they even said a word. And remember: they can’t be bargained with; they can’t be reasoned with; they do not feel pity or remorse or fear. And they will absolutely not stop, ever, until the last drop of oil is made profitable and then wrung from the planet.