Shell Oil's Arctic drilling drew massive protests in Seattle in 2015Shell's attempts to drill in the Arctic drew massive protests in Seattle in 2015. Photo credit: David Ryder/Getty Images

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By Karen Savage

A newly revealed research document is adding to the growing body of evidence showing that while Royal Dutch Shell was internally acknowledging the global risks of climate change—and fossil fuels’ pivotal role in it—the company was also exploring ways to profit from a melting Arctic.

The document, a 1987 research proposal and contract posted earlier this month on Climate Files, exposes Shell’s keen interest in predicting “long-range forecasts of weather and ice” in the Arctic.

Taken together with earlier research funded by the company and a patent for an offshore Arctic drilling structure, the document brings into focus the oil giant’s quest to use what it knew about fossil fuel-driven climate change to inflate its bottom line.

“These documents demonstrate that at a time where we have clear and compelling evidence that Shell and other companies were well aware of the rising risks and the rising potential impacts of climate change, they continued to have a vested interest in opening new frontiers for oil exploration,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, which posted the patent in its Smoke and Fumes collection.

The research proposal was submitted to Shell in 1987 by John E. Walsh, then a professor of meteorology at the University of Illinois. It came after an earlier phone discussion with David Agerton, a Shell engineer who planned “offshore exploration activity in environmentally sensitive, seasonal-ice areas offshore Alaska” for the oil giant.

“I have enclosed a description of a project that would produce an analog system for long-range prediction of Alaskan ice severity,” Walsh wrote to Agerton in the research proposal. Walsh, who had already studied the relationship between climate and sea ice, estimated the project’s budget would be about $26,000.

Analog predictions utilize data from previous weather scenarios to make predictions for the future.

Shell reviewed and accepted the proposal, writing back that it was “interested in the prediction of summer season lengths in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.” The company acquired leases in the Beaufort Sea in 1979 and had begun exploration at Seal Island in 1982.

The final project is not included in the documents, but Walsh, now chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska, said it was a seasonal forecast project and not intended to predict long-term climate change.

“It was designed to enable them to make forecasts in say April or May of what the summer conditions were going to be like in say July or August or September,” Walsh said.

“A good forecast of the summer ice season would let them know how long a window they can expect to have for open water. In some years in the ‘80s there was essentially no water and in some years there was a month or two or three of open water along the coast,” he said.

“This project was designed to let them know several months in advance whether it was going to be what we call a low ice year or a high ice year and that would affect how long they have to drill,” said Walsh said. “The irony is that since the 1980s, things have changed so much that now a days in that same area every year has three or four months of open water, so there’s a much longer drilling season now.”

Last year, Walsh contributed to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which predicts the Arctic Ocean will see completely ice-free summers by 2040.

Research funded by Shell predicted a warmer Arctic decades ago.  

In an addendum to The Greenhouse Effect—a confidential report circulated internally by the company in 1988—Shell’s M.H. Griffiths described research completed for the company in 1981 by Dr. Tom Wigley at the Climate Research Unit at England’s University of East Anglia.

Griffiths said Wigley took “great pains to emphasize the uncertainties that still exist” but also said that Wigley was prepared to “stick his neck out to say that there has been a global warming over the last 100 years.” Wigley attributed that warming to carbon dioxide build-up and predicted further warming over the next 40 years. He also predicted “the warming will be greater in higher latitudes.”

Shell—along with the U.S. Department of Energy—funded further research by Wigley and his colleagues. Climate and Climate Impact Scenarios for Europe in a Warmer World, was published in 1983 and examined the impact of global warming on agriculture and energy consumption in European countries based on several scenarios.

In that report, Wigley’s team acknowledged that the combustion of fossil fuels had led to a “substantial increase in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over pre-industrial levels” and predicted values would have doubled by 2025. The team also predicted that a doubling of carbon dioxide levels would “produce an increase in global mean temperatures of 2–3 degrees C.”  Again, the largest temperature increases were predicted to be in higher latitudes, like the Arctic.

Muffett said Shell’s research on European scenarios shows the company was well aware of the coming impacts of climate change and the need to prepare for the ways those impacts would affect the energy business and the demand for energy.

“This reinforces the evidence that even as the companies were arguing in public that risks of climate change weren’t real, that they weren’t severe, that climate change wasn’t anthropogenic, the research that they’re funding is actually looking at ever greater levels of detail at ‘how can we optimize our own business in light of what we expect in a climate-changed world’,” Muffett said.

Shell—armed with research predicting a warmer and less ice-covered Arctic—submitted a patent in 1984 for “an offshore structure for use in drilling and producing wells in Arctic regions”.

The structure was designed with a conical shaped base with a stiff outer layer that could resist and deflect ice sheets and “impacts from storms accompanied by ice invasions.” It was “particularly adapted for conducting operations in the shallow waters of the Beaufort Sea.”

“They clearly were well-aware from their work in the Gulf and other regions that near offshore areas were likely to be very rich in oil and the challenge in accessing that area in the Arctic was the challenge of sea ice,” said Muffett, who added that throughout the ‘80s the industry was warned by its own scientists that any long-term infrastructure investments would have to made with the awareness of the long-term impacts of climate change.

Within weeks of submitting the offshore structure patent, Shell—along with partners Amoco Production Company, Amerada Hess Corporation, Texas Eastern Exploration Company and Murphy Oil U.S.A. Inc.—announced the discovery of oil deposits which “could reasonably be in the range of 300 million barrels”.

Shell would go on to explore and attempt to produce in the Alaskan Arctic for the next three decades. During that time, the company spent billions and was beset by permitting issues, safety violations, technical failures and large-scale protests before it announced in 2015 that it was ending its Arctic exploration.

Shell did not respond to a request for comment. 

The company is already facing legal action based on a trove of documents about Shell’s knowledge of climate change unearthed by Jelmer Mommers of the Dutch news organization De Correspondent. Friends of the Earth Netherlands / Milieudefensie delivered a liability letter to the Dutch oil giant demanding it cut back on its oil and gas production to align with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. When the company refused, the group sued.

Muffett said none of these documents contain a “smoking gun,” but are more like missing puzzle pieces.

“Each of these pieces of evidence that comes to light adds to that puzzle,” he said. “Every new piece of evidence we have increases the damning indictment of Shell and what we know they knew about climate change.”

“This is an industry—for which the evidence is now clear and compelling—that continued with business as usual for decades despite being well-aware of the risks that their business created,” Muffett said.  

“They were looking for every opportunity to adapt their own business to thrive in a world of climate change. We can see that they were developing the technologies and constantly pushing into frontiers that would be inaccessible but for climate change making the ice retreat.”