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EU-Arctic strategy

An oil leak in the Arctic could have a devastating impact on the environment for hundreds of years, warns Satu Hassi.

While the world’s attention is turning to the yet unexplored natural resources in the Arctic, the region’s unique environment risks paying the price of our addiction to fossil fuels. Climate change represents a double whammy for the Arctic. The most visible sign of global warming is the melting of the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean, which last September fell to the second-lowest extent since the start of the satellite record, according to the US national snow and ice data centre. Consequently, the September ice extent in 2011 was 2.43 million square kilometres below the 1979 to 2000 average.

Meanwhile, the accelerating melt is opening up new shipping routes, inviting polluting activities to the region. The neighbouring states have awakened to the new business opportunities that this could bring to those who own the region’s natural resources and access to it, sparking territorial claims. After a 40-year dispute, Norway and Russia agreed over their maritime borders in the Barents sea in 2010. This will allow them to exploit the region’s resources, including new oil and gas exploration.

Moreover, legions of ships transporting goods as well as tourists ready to explore these previously inaccessible areas pose a threat to the ecosystems of the northern marine ecosystems. They also spew out particle emissions such as black carbon, which have a climate-warming effect as they absorb sunlight when landing on pristine snow and ice, which would normally reflect it back.

The consequences of an oil leak in arctic conditions of ice, snow and complete darkness for almost six months a year could be devastating. Experts admit there is currently no technology to clean oil in icy conditions, and it could take hundreds of years for the environment to recover if a major spill took place under the ice. The risks were also recently acknowledged in a report by Lloyds of London, which found that investment in the Arctic could reach €75bn within 10 years.

In the wake of the Deep Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico, some 45,000 people and 4000 boats were mobilised in an effort to clean up the oil spill. There would be no infrastructure to respond to a similar accident in the Arctic region where distances to harbours are long. For example, a worst case scenario could see an oil leak of 120,000 tonnes in Prirazlomnoye in the Russian Arctic, while the nearest response infrastructure is located 1000km from the field in Murmansk.

The oil companies’ argument for the need to expand oil and gas production to these uncharted territories is that global energy demand will double by 2050 and fossil fuels will continue to deliver 60 per cent of the energy mix.

However, the international energy agency last October acknowledged that delaying action to drive investments in clean energies is “a false economy”. Every €0.75 not invested in cleaner technology in the power sector before 2020 will end up costing an additional €3.30 after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions, it said. Instead of exposing the vulnerable Arctic nature to considerable risks to continue our unsustainable addiction to oil, we should be moving towards renewable energy in electricity production and shifting from fossil fuels to electricity in transport. It’s difficult to imagine any other way to avoid accidents detrimental to the environment as well as to human lives.

Satu Hassi is a member of parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee

This article was published in The Parliament Magazine the 30th April 2012