Narwhals in the Arctic
© Jason Box/ Greenpeace
The Arctic's extreme weather and freezing temperatures, its remote location and the presence of moving sea ice severely increase the risks of oil drilling, complicate logistics and present unparalleled difficulties for any clean-up operation. Its fragile ecosystem is particularly vulnerable to an oil spill and the consequences of an accident would have a profound effect on the environment and local fisheries.
The Arctic is home to four million people, many of whom are descendants of Indigenous communities who have lived in the Far North for thousands of years. It also houses a diverse range of unique wildlife: hundreds of species of seabirds, millions of migrating birds; 17 different species of whale live there, while experts believe that 90% of the world's narwhal population can be found in Baffin Bay alone. Mammals including Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes and various species of seal inhabit the Arctic at different points throughout the year. The impact of a spill on these communities and already vulnerable animal species would be devastating and long-lasting.
Polar bears under threat
A mother bear and her cub.
© Nick Cobbing/ Greenpeace
The US Geological Survey estimates that around 13% of the world's undiscovered oil could lie under the area north of the Arctic Circle. Sounds like a lot? At our current oil consumption rate, that's actually only three years' worth of resources.
Due to climate change, the Arctic sea ice is melting at an alarming rate each summer, allowing creeping industrialisation as companies and governments scramble for the region’s natural resources.
However, drilling in the Arctic presents, as even Cairn Energy admits, "significant challenges". Alongside the logistical nightmare of operating in such a hostile and remote region, oil rigs face an ever-present risk from huge icebergs and have to employ fleets of ships to drag them out of the way. Some of the icebergs are so big, though, that oil rigs are forced to stop drilling and move out of their way.
The Arctic drilling season is limited to a narrow window of a few months during the summer. In this short period of time, complete the huge logistical response needed to cap a leaking well would be almost impossible. For instance, the successful drilling of vital relief wells, crucial to permanently capping a reptured well, could not be guaranteed before the winter ice returns. If relief wells are left unfinished over the winter, oil could continue to gush out for up to two years. Yet despite these incredible risks oil companies continue to recklessly lobby governments to relax Arctic drilling safety rules.
Oil in ice
Oil and ice are mixed up - and booms appear mostly useless in the clean up of a small oil spill after Icelandic container ship Godafoss ran aground on the Southern Norwegian coast on February 17th 2011.
© Jon Terje Hellgren Hansen / Greenpeace
In the Arctic´s freezing conditions, oil is known to behave very differently than in lower latitudes. It takes much longer to disperse in cold water and experts suggest that there is no way to contain or clean-up oil trapped underneath large bodies of ice. Toxic traces would linger for a longer period, affecting local wildlife for longer, be transported large distances by ice floes and leave a lasting stain on this pristine environment.
The closest example we have seen of the effects of an oil spill in these Northern extremes is the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska. Two decades later, the region is still suffering the after-effects, with local populations of otters being severely harmed , orcas yet to recover and spilled oil remaining in areas on land. The impact of a blow-out on the Arctic seabed could be far more significant for the waters of the High North.
The oil industry has demonstrated time and time again that it is simply not prepared to deal with the risks and consequences of drilling in the Arctic. One senior official from a Canadian firm that specializes in oil-spill response openly stated that: “There is really no solution or method today that we're aware of that can actually recover [spilled] oil from the Arctic.”
Stopping Arctic drilling
Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo prepares to climb a rig exploring for oil near the coast of Greenland in June 2011.
© Jiri Rezac/ Greenpeace
Yet Shell claimed it could clean up 95% of a possible spill in the Beaufort, a fantastical figure when you consider that the US Geological Survey thinks only 1-20% could be recovered from an Arctic spill, while recovery rates from the Exxon Valdez spill were estimated to be 9% and only 17% for Deepwater Horizon.
Cairn's oil spill response plan, eventually made public after months of pressure from Greenpeace, is, as oil spill expert Rick Steiner underlined, wholly inadequate. So-called "solutions" like transporting blocks of contaminated ice to warehouses and letting them melt to recover the oil, or claims that fish have been found to swim away from oil (which experts have shown is simply not true), are outlandish and unrealistic.
Shell's spill response plan for an accident in the Chukchi Sea was recently approved by the US government. This document is supposed to explain what Shell will do to block a ruptured well and save this Arctic region from an ecological catastrophe, but even a quick read shows that the company would be entirely unable to respond to an accident in the High North. In fact, it's more like a negligence plan than a spill plan, depending on a capping and containment system that hasn't even been built, on deflection barriers that will not work properly in ice and with on-shore clean-up plans that look like they've been drawn by children. At the same time we hear that Shell is also paying to train Dachshunds to hunt out oil trapped under thick layers of ice.
All we need to do is look at BP's response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to realise how challenging Arctic drilling could be. The company needed over 6,000 ships, more than 50,000 people and a massive cheque book to cap its leaking well, and even then it didn’t manage it for months, causing the biggest environmental disaster in US history. If Big Oil cannot adequately respond to a spill in temperate conditions near to large population centers and with the best response resources available, how can we be assured by claims that they are prepared to deal with a spill in the extreme Arctic environment? A top US Coast Guard's official recently admitted that they currently have “zero” spill response capability in the Arctic.
The oil industry cannot guarantee the safety of Arctic drilling and is recklessly putting profit before the environment. As Cairn's recent operations prove, the immense technical, economic and environmental risks of drilling in the Arctic just aren't worth it.