It just might be getting warm enough to work in the notoriously brutal conditions of the Arctic.
Yet, Chevron notified Canadian officials on Wednesday that it won't be drilling in its territorial waters, citing the "economic uncertainty" brought about by plummeting oil prices.
The California-based company, one of the world's top ten oil producers, had eyed drilling in the Beaufort Sea, more than 150 miles off the coast the Northwest Territories. But the company told Canada's National Energy Board this week that it was putting the plan on ice "due to a number of factors, including the level of economic uncertainty in the industry."
Chevron told VICE News the company had no further comment on the move. But since the price of crude has tumbled from more than $90 a barrel in October to less than $56 on Thursday, expensive new plays like the Arctic are a harder sell even for industry giants.
"This is a really good decision for them to move away from taking such a risky exploration," John Bennett, the national program director for the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, told VICE News. "I just hope they don't come back when the price of oil comes back up."
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, US researchers reported Wednesday. Scientists blame the trend on carbon emissions largely created by the burning of fossil fuels like oil and gas.
But as average sea ice cover in the North has gone down, it's opened new opportunities for companies seeking to tap into the nearly 90 billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that geologists estimate lies beneath the sea floor.
It's also raised new fears about the safety of drilling in the unpredictable conditions of the Arctic, particularly after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
When Chevron pulled its request, it had been seeking advance approval of plans for a relief well, a key safety measure added after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, Canadian Energy Board spokeswoman Tara O'Donovan told VICE News.
The roughly 800-square-mile patch of the Beaufort Sea floor that Chevron had leased lies north of two major environmental preserves — Canada's Ivvavik National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, just across the border with Alaska. Bennett said that if Chevron went forward, a spill in Canadian waters could end up on the shores of the Alaskan refuge "despite all the great work being done in the US to protect it."
"We would hope that there would be more common sense in the oil industry in terms of where they drill for oil," Bennett added.
The region is home to much of Canada's native Inuit population, who rely extensively on hunting and fishing to put food on their tables and clothes on their back. Inuit leaders have taken a cautious approach to the potential for oil and gas development, calling for a "proper balance" between industry and environmental protection. Projects must be "carefully considered" in order to limit harm to the environment "and should always be seen through the reality of climate change," the council declared in a 2013 statement.
Through a spokeswoman, Council president Duane Smith declined comment on Chevron's pullback.
Chevron, which still has two other prospects in the offshore Arctic, isn't the first big firm to see its dreams of cold-water riches melt away.
After an initial foray marked by a string of mishaps in 2012, Royal Dutch Shell skipped plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska for the next two summers. Earlier this month, Shell contractor Noble Drilling entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors for violating environmental and maritime laws during the 2012 season, which Greenpeace called "good news for Canada's Arctic."
"Chevron's decision to indefinitely halt its Arctic oil drilling plans is further proof that technical challenges of drilling in icy waters, where a spill is all but inevitable, pushing costs far too high to be viable, especially with volatile oil prices," Greenpeace Canada Arctic Campaigner Farrah Khan said in a written statement.
The sharp drop in crude futures is also putting the pinch on other offshore projects. Robin Allen, the head of the British independent drillers' group Brindex, said the North Sea oil industry was "close to collapse" as prices fall below $60 a barrel.
"Everyone is retreating," Allan said. "People are being laid off at most companies this week and in the coming weeks. Budgets for 2015 are being cut by everyone."
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