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Drilling in the Arctic: is it inevitable?

It seems the discussion has shifted from a question of whether or not to drill, to how to prepare for the drilling when it happens.
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Greenpeace activists demonstrate on March 16, 2012 in the port of Helsinki as other activists occupy a Shell-contracted icebreaker preparing to sail for the Arctic. Fennica and Nordica, two Finnish icebreakers whose main task is to secure shipping in the Baltic Sea, have been leased out to Shell for the summer seasons of 2012, 2013 and 2014 to help Shell drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska. (Markku Ulander /AFP/Getty Images)

MEDFORD, Mass. — Jarring is one way to describe the image that spilled across newspapers, websites and TVs over the New Year. The towering drill rig Kulluk bobbed like a bath toy off Alaska’s Kodiak Island, battered by some of the most punishing weather conditions on the planet.

Last week, the rig’s owner, Royal Dutch Shell, cited the mishap as one of the reasons for suspending its billion-dollar plans to drill in the Arctic Sea off Alaska. Environmentalists cheered. Oil industry specialists groaned.

The rig and the Arctic: a collision of human ingenuity and brutal nature in the quest for the fuel of the 21st century global economy. Is it worth it?

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Oil rig grounding a reminder of Arctic's high stakes

The unexpected grounding of Shell Oil's drilling rig has put to rest any assumptions that all things Arctic are under control.
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A Greenpeace activist covers the logo of the Shell oil company to protest on May 10, 2012 against the heading of the an icebreaker for Shell's Arctic oil drilling project in the north of Alaska. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

EDITOR'S NOTE: With the searing image of Shell’s big drilling rig up against Alaska’s frozen, rocky shoreline and a relentless, powerful surf crashing against it, the world was offered a horrifying glimpse this month of how the Arctic can leave even the best laid plans smashed on the rocks.

It is an image worth pondering and a reality worth remembering as Shell vows to push forward this year with its plan to officially begin drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic and its ambitious hopes to tap into some of the largest unexploited reserves in the world.

Global warming has led to a historic level of surface melt of sea ice and has subsequently opened the Arctic for oil exploration and shipping. Environmentalists and native populations now worry that a big oil spill in the Arctic would devastate a fragile environment that the whole world relies on as a central cooling system for the planet, and which the traditional Inuit Eskimos rely on for subsistence hunting and fishing.

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Sen. Kerry tells GlobalPost why US needs to sign Law of the Sea Convention

Kerry will call a string of top military brass to testify before Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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US Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) holds up a newspaper advertisement as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Law of the Sea Convention, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 23, 2012. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Senator John Kerry is bringing out the top brass Thursday in his effort to get the United States to finally sign on to the Law of the Sea Convention, which many environmentalists and oil and gas industry officials agree is required for successful and safe exploration of the Arctic Circle.

At hearings scheduled before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is calling no fewer than six four-star generals and admirals who are expected to testify in support of the treaty that has already been ratified by 162 countries.

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