Ecological organisations call on Arctic Council to introduce moratorium on offshore drilling

Publish date: May 16, 2011

Environmental organisations from Canada, Norway, and Russia have appealed their countries’ foreign ministries with a call to enforce a moratorium on developing oil and gas fields in the Arctic. The northern seas are too vulnerable and too sensitive to external impacts for humankind to even be able to predict the kind of peril that even a most careful intrusion can bring to the virgin polar territories, ecologists says, while the consequences may prove fatal to the polar climate.

The statement came on the eve of the May 12 Seventh Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council, an international organisation dedicated to the facilitation of regional cooperation in the fields of environmental protection and sustainable development of polar regions. The council, which was founded in 1996 and joins together Canada, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Russia, and the United States, gathers the participating ministers for meetings once every two years. This year, Sweden, acting through its Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt, is chairing the Council’s work, and climate change and issues of production of hydrocarbon fuels were to be discussed during the meeting.

The agenda was to include ecological problems of polar regions first and foremost, as well as issues of marine shipping, surveying and developing oil and gas deposits, social and economic development, and health and protection of interests of indigenous peoples of the north.

That these issues were to be brought up for discussion could not have been a more timely decision: Days before the meeting was to take place, on May 7, an oil spill accident occurred in the White Sea, where a shore-based petroleum bulk plant was discovered to have been responsible for polluting 20,000 square metres of water surface in Kandalaksha Bay. 

The spill stopped barely a kilometre away from one of Russia’s oldest national parks, a territory that is home to over 270 endangered species.

On May 11, regional ecological organisations from the Russian northern cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk – the Kola Ecological Center, Bellona-Murmansk, and Etas – addressed an open letter to the head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, with a call to recognise the ecological risks of developing oil and gas fields in the Arctic and introduce a moratorium on subsea drilling in the Arctic region in order to preserve the unique polar ecosystem (please see the .pdf copy of the letter on the right, in Russian). Copies of this address were also sent by ecologists from Norway, Canada, and the United States to their respective foreign ministries.

“The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to catastrophic consequences for the natural environment and the economy of the region, was another reminder of the serious risks that subsea drilling brings with it. That example confirms that not always does having top-notch experience guarantee safety and accidents will happen in the future,” the letter said, in part.

The vulnerable Arctic ecosystem is already experiencing harmful technogenic impacts linked to climate change, global transport of pollutants, and radioactive contamination, among other effects. A more dynamic exploration of oil and gas reserves in the region could prove perilous for the environment of the Arctic.

“The environment of northern seas is so sensitive and vulnerable that even a slight disturbance of its structure could lead to irreversible consequences, and those consequences will be hard to predict due to the little knowledge there is of the ecosystem. And the ecological risks of exploration in the Arctic – and by extension, the probability of accidents – are significantly higher there than in other regions, something that stems from the complex natural climatic conditions and the need to use unique technologies,” Nina Lesikhina, an expert from Bellona-Murmansk says.

“No company in the world today has the knowledge and the experience it takes to produce hydrocarbons safely in the Arctic conditions, which means that a moratorium on offshore drilling there must be enforced,” she added.

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