A protestor with the Alaska Wilderness League protests arctic drilling in Washington, D.C., in 2008 . (UPI Photo/Kevin Dietsch) | License Photo
WASHINGTON, July 16 (UPI) -- Drilling in the arctic isn't likely to boost U.S. energy security in the short term but is an option the country must be ready to explore, energy experts say.
The arctic is believed to account for about 13 percent of undiscovered oil in the world -- an estimated 90 billion barrels -- the U.S Geological Survey says.
But, given the high costs of development associated with the harsh environment in the region, it might be 10 years before arctic oil reaches the domestic market, said Will Rogers, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
However, experts say companies venturing into the arctic are investing for the future.
As onshore oil resources are reaching their limits and turmoil in the Middle East threatens to disrupt oil supplies, pursuing arctic oil is an option that should be kept alive, said Robert Johnston, director of global energy and natural resources practice at the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm.
"It is very difficult at this stage to make a longer-time call about how important the resources will be until we really know it is," he said. "But it is clear that these companies think that it is a viable strategy in Alaska, at least from an exploration point of view."
Exploration of the arctic has sharply increased in recent years as previously inaccessible resources are becoming available because of the melting of ice.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in June that oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, which has been waiting for drilling permits for years, is likely to get a green light.
Charles Emmerson, senior research fellow at the Chatham House, a research institute in London, said the United States should focus more on expanding other energy resources instead of pinning too much hope on the arctic because of the uncertainties in the region.
"In terms of U.S national security, the key is not to do the arctic, the key is to do shale gas production and shale oil production," he said. "I don't think it [arctic oil] in any way has the same salience, from an energy security perspective, that it did or it might have five or 10 years ago."
Experts also warned about potential environmental risks. They say that consequences of a spill in the pristine region will be far worse than the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 people and left crude oil flowing for three months.
Some Alaskans are wary about drilling because of the potential environmental hazards in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound.
Emmerson said the risk isn't only environmental but also reputational. He said if there is a spill, the public is more likely to lose confidence in the industry.
"If one company screws up in the arctic, that could affect the industry," he said. "In fact, that could kill off an industry very quickly."