Leaked Arctic Council oil spill agreement weak and puts Canadians at risk

Feature story - February 4, 2013
On the eve of the Arctic Council environment ministers' meeting in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, a leaked copy of the Council’s oil spill response agreement entitled, “Co-operation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic” reveals deeply inadequate measures and a lack of effective penalties.

Pack ice melting Packeis © Bernd Roemmelt / Greenpeace


After nearly two years of development, the agreement is set to be adopted at the Arctic nations meeting in May when Canada begins chairing the Arctic Council.

“The agreement asks so little of Canada and the other Arctic states, that it is effectively useless,” said Christy Ferguson, Arctic project leader for Greenpeace Canada. “Despite promises that this would be the first legally-binding agreement of its kind, it fails to outline any essential response equipment, methods for capping wells, or cleaning up oiled habitat and wildlife, relying instead on vague statements that Arctic nations should ‘ensure’ they try and take ‘appropriate steps within available resources’.”

Further, the draft obtained by Greenpeace omits any discussion of oil company liabilities or effective arrangements in case of a cross-boundary incident. This is particularly relevant for Canadians, as compa-nies are already attempting to drill off the coast of neighbouring Greenland to the east and in Alaska to the west. Scientists say that spilled oil could become trapped in ice and travel for 1,600 kilometers across the ocean.

“We have companies inexperienced in Arctic drilling, operating in some of the most dangerous and un-predictable conditions on the planet, in places where there is minimal capacity to deal with a large-scale disaster,” continued Ferguson. “This agreement does next to nothing to protect Canada’s Arctic and the people who live there from the potentially devastating effects of an oil spill just across our borders.”

Given that many Arctic drilling areas are exceptionally remote, there is no guarantee that resources would be either available or adequate. Coupled with the proven inability of Shell, Gazprom and Cairn to provide sufficient on-site response capabilities in Alaska, Russia and Greenland, the Arctic Council seems to be turning a deliberate blind eye to realities in the Arctic.

Serious questions remain about the role that oil companies played in drafting this agreement. Photos issued on the Arctic Council’s Flickr photostream show oil industry representatives participating in the working group, including the final meeting in which the document was finalized.

No oil company has proven it can clean up an oil spill in ice. The agreement offers nothing towards identifying how a company would stop and clean up a Deepwater Horizon-style disaster. “Instead, this document is akin to the UN Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty simply saying, ‘If it’s not too much trouble, please have a national plan to not detonate atomic bombs’,” said Ben Ayliffe, head of the Arctic Oil campaign for Greenpeace International.

Read the full version of the draft agreement