The future of the Arctic in the midst of a new ’cold rush’

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MEPs met with Commission, industry and NGOs representatives to discuss gas and oil drilling in the Arctic at a conference at the European Parliament on 1 February. The conference, co-organised with Bellona Europe, was entitled ‘Vulnerable Arctic’ and brought forward the fact oil and gas activities in the Arctic carry far larger risks than elsewhere and questioned whether existing offshore safety standards are capable of dealing with an oil spill in Arctic conditions.

The Arctic is home to flourishing marine life, unique habitats and species. It plays a crucial role in ocean circulation and climate regulation, while also acting as a large carbon sink.

However, while global warming invites further human interference in this unique natural environment by opening new shipping routes, shipping and oil and gas extraction in turn accelerate climate change and melting of ice caps. This impact will be reinforced if it turns the carbon sinks into a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

'Very harsh atmospheric conditions, including factors such as temperature, icing and darkness enhance the probability of an oil spill,' said Nicolas Fournier from environmental organisation Oceana.  All speakers agreed that the complexity of a potential oil spill would be much greater in those hostile conditions, where it is impossible to clean ice of oil and where no suitable blowout prevention technologies are at hand.

Icing causes stability problems on ships and oil rigs while rescuing people from icy waters must happen in a matter of minutes.
Moreover, there is currently no infrastructure to provide the massive response of 45,000 people and 4,000 boats involved in the clean-up after the Gulf of Mexico accident, Frederic Hauge, President of The Bellona Foundation, pointed out.

Following that accident, the European Commission decided to propose common minimum rules for offshore activities in the EU. David Schreib from the European Commission said that the proposed EU regulation on offshore safety looked to the Norwegian standards recognised to be among the highest in the world.

The regulation will apply to a large chunk of the Arctic as it will become part of the EEA Agreement and cover the whole Norwegian Exclusive Economic Zone that stretches far north of Spitsbergen.

Nils Andreas Masvie of the Norwegian classification society DNV, which is developing standards for oil and gas rigs operating in the Barents Sea, argued that it is difficult to bring the level of safety to an acceptable level in the Arctic where existing standards are not sufficient.

‘There is not much we can do about the temperature, darkness etc., but we can work with the technology and the standards to reduce the risks,’ he said.

Hauge suggested the proposed EU regulation should be strengthened with respect to issues such as financial security, human resources and workers’ involvement, criminal liability for oil spills, independent third party verification for installations as well as specific rules for the Arctic and other harsh conditions. He suggested that key requirements of the regulation should apply to European companies also when operating in other parts of the world.

Overall, the debate demonstrated that the risks of oil and gas drilling in the Arctic are huge. The only sustainable solution is to abandon our addiction to oil and start investing in cleaner energy.

Published on the Parliament Magazine #343 on 20 February 2012