Drilling for Oil in the Arctic: A Timeline

A view of the Gazprom Arctic oil rig 'Prirazlomnaya' in the Barents Sea, near Naryan Mar, Russia on September 14, 2014. Credit: Dmitry Korotayev / Kommersant Photo / Getty Images

As Arctic ice rapidly diminishes, vast oil fields previously thought unreachable are now the centerpiece of new environmental battles. While two Shell Oil rigs prepare to drill offshore exploratory wells off the Alaskan coast, watchdog groups across the globe are raising alarm trying to stop them. At stake are potentially some of the largest oil reserves left on the planet. Here's a look at the history of the Arctic oil rush — one that's really been around for nearly 100 years.

  • 1915: First successful circumnavigation of Northeast Passage by Russian expedition using icebreaker.
  • 1920: First Arctic oil deposits discovered at Norman Wells in the Canadian Northwest Territories.
  • July 1957: First successful circumnavigation of Northwest Passage by United States Coast Guard Icebreaker.
  • 1958: First federal lease sale on Alaskan North Slope.
  • December 1960: Arctic National Wildlife Range established as a federally protected area by Congress. Consists of 9 Million acres of land on North Slope.


  • 1965: Significant oil deposits found in Zapolyarnoye Field in Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region in Soviet Union. Large-scale oil field development follows.
  • March 1968: Large oil deposits discovered at Prudhoe Bay.
  • 1974-1976: 800-Mile Alaskan Pipeline built from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez enabling major oil field development on North Slope.
  • July 1977: Alaskan Pipeline ships first oil.
  • August 1977: Soviet icebreaker NS Arkitka reached North Pole.
  • February 1978: Vandals blow up part of Alaskan Pipeline causing large spill.
  • 1979: First Arctic offshore lease sales offered by U.S. government in the Barents Sea.
  • December 1980: 11 million acres added to Arctic National Wildlife Range, renamed Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)


  • August 1983: Kolva River Oil Spill in Soviet Union 5th largest in history spilling 84 million gallons.
  • 1984: Snøhvit oil field discovered in Norway.
  • March 1989: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound halts Congressional plans to allow drilling in ANWR.
  • October 2001: A vandal shoots Alaskan Pipeline causing spill.
  • 2006: Series of large spills on North Slope due to corroded pipelines.
  • August 2007: Russians plant flag on seabed of North Pole symbolically claiming huge portion of Arctic.
  • 2007: Pack ice has shrunk enough to allow Northwest Passage navigation without icebreakers.
  • 2008: US government offers federal offshore drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea. Royal Dutch Shell bids $2.1 million for them.
  • July 2008: The U.S. Geologic Survey releases report stating that there are 90 billion barrels of oil undiscovered in Arctic. Estimates that 84% of that oil is offshore. This represents almost 22% of world's remaining undiscovered oil reserves.
  • April 2010: Deepwater Horizon spill in Gulf of Mexico. U.S. Government imposes an offshore drilling moratorium.

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  • April 2012: Lloyds of London issues report on Arctic offshore drilling highly critical to practice.
  • July 2012: Shell’s offshore oil spill response equipment repeatedly fails government tests.
  • September 2012: Pack ice forces Shell to abandon drilling for year.
  • December 2012: Kulluk offshore drilling platform owned by Shell is grounded offshore of Sitkalidak Island in Alaska while being towed.
  • 2013: Drilling suspended for year as government reviews Shell’s equipment.
  • 2014: Drilling suspended as government reviews Arctic drilling.
  • April 2014: Russia’s Prirazlomnaya, the world’s first ever ice-resistant oil platform begins production.
  • December 2014: Chevron halts exploration of Canadian Arctic offshore oil exploration.
  • April 2015: Protests begin in Seattle to block Shell offshore drilling rigs that are planning to head to Alaska.
  • June 2015: Exxon Mobil and British Petroleum suspend Canadian Arctic offshore oil exploration.
  • June 2015: Two Shell Oil drilling rigs — the Polar Explorer & Noble Discover — leave Seattle.