A global oil glut has tanked prices and cut profits—so why won’t Shell give up on the north? ... geologists believe that beneath Burger J—70 miles offshore and 800 miles from the Anchorage command center—lie up to 15 billion barrels of oil. An additional 11 billion barrels are thought to be buried due east under the Beaufort Sea. All told, Arctic waters cover about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered petroleum, or enough to supply the U.S. for more than a decade, according to government estimates. ... Surprise lurks in the Chukchi, whose frigid waters north of the Bering Strait span from Alaska to Siberia. Logistical and legal obstacles have repeatedly delayed the Arctic initiative, on which Shell is spending more than $1 billion a year—more than $7 billion so far and counting. The single well in the Chukchi Shell aims to excavate this summer could be the most expensive on earth, and it hasn’t yielded its first barrel of crude. ... Shell’s Scenarios group, an in-house think tank that management points to as an emblem of its open-mindedness, has done extensive work undergirding the company’s support for government policies encouraging development of renewable energy sources, she says. But the Scenarios research also justifies aggressive exploration for more crude. With the global population rising from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050 and total energy demand nearly doubling ... Most of the world’s “easy oil” has already been pumped or nationalized by resource-rich governments, Pickard says, leaving independent producers such as Shell no choice but to pursue “extreme oil” in dicey places.
If one likens the shape of Alaska to a bearded human face in profile, Lituya Bay is somewhere near the Adam’s apple. It is a long, narrow, T-shaped, glacier-carved notch about eight miles long and two miles wide (13km by 3km), bordered on its west end by the Fairweather mountain range. It is unusually deep, and a small island lies near the very center. From a distance, the bay appears to have a wide mouth, but a narrow strip of land called “La Chaussee Spit” drapes across most of the opening, leaving the actual inlet only 1,600 feet (490 meters) wide. ... Within about a minute, the approaching wave became visible to the boats still at anchor, and the occupants looked on in awe as the wide skyscraper of water traversed the length of the bay towards them. When it reached Cenotaph Island another minute or so later, the proportions of the wave became clear. The center of the wave was almost as high as the highest point on the island, 300 feet in the air. On the two opposite shores, the plowing saltwater reached over 1,700 feet (over 500 meters) onto land, twisting even the most massive trees from their roots and scraping the bedrock nearly clean.
Above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, a half-day's journey by snowmobile from the nearest paved road or tree, a village called Kivalina sits on a slip of permanently frozen earth bracketed by water — a lagoon on one side and the Chukchi Sea on the other. Every spring, when daylight returns to the village after months of darkness, people stand in the snow outside their storm-battered cabins and look out at the sea, hoping this will be the year. ... Some Alaskan villages catch a whale every year. Kivalina was never that lucky, partly because it occupies a spot on the coast that's farther from the migratory path of the bowhead whale. Still, there was a time when villagers could reasonably expect to land a whale every three or four years. Those days are gone. ... It had been 21 years since the last successful whale hunt, 21 years of futility and disappointment, and yet, for reasons I didn't fully understand, the villagers hadn't given up. When I asked Reppi Swan why they still did it — why they still risked their lives and spent so much of their time and money pursuing a goal that always eluded them — he was succinct. "It's who we are," he said.