Shell has received the final permits to drill off the coast of Alaska, courtesy of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Many in the oil industry are timid, citing the many high risks involved from both a business and environmental perspective. One expert even predicts that oil demand is set for a long-term decline. If that's true, drilling in the Arctic would be an epic miscalculation — and a poor business decision.

Former BP executive John Browne has publicly warned Shell of the potentially disastrous consequences of their decision, saying, “I think you’ve got to be careful what you do, and cost includes your long-term reputation.” In reply, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden says he has been on a “personal journey” in deciding whether or not to drill, although precisely what this personal journey consisted of has not been disclosed.

Shell and the BSEE are adamant that they will be mindful of the risks. It’s possible that they are more fearful of bad PR than hurting the environment, and that they are taking this risk because of the possibility of a big payday. If cartoons and stereotypes have taught us anything, it’s that oil people love money. But what if the prospector only thinks he has struck black gold, when in fact it’s a resource rapidly decreasing in value?

Amory Lovins, an oil industry expert for over 40 years, suspects that we are currently at our height in terms of how much oil we use and that there is nowhere to go but down. There are many factors at play, from young people’s disinterest in owning a car to increased fuel efficiency. The previous dynamic of more demand than supply could very well reverse in the near future.

With BP apprehensive and experts predicting a lower demand for oil, it becomes worrisome that Shell should decide to drill, baby, drill. The long-term environmental and financial consequences will either be pleasantly surprising or an unmitigated disaster. Either way, this is a historical and landmark decision that will have ramifications for generations to come.

Aside from politics, photographic artist Edward Burtynsky is fascinated by the history of oil prospecting. Here he takes us on a tour of some of his most arresting photos.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock