Two things transpired yesterday in the (slightly insane) world of Arctic oil drilling.
First, oil spill expert Richard Steiner took a good look at Cairn Energy’s Greenland oil spill response plan (the one over 100,000 people demanded to see). It turns out, there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved, and not much ground-breaking technology. Cairn insists that there is no problem, because the Greenlandic government approved it and let them drill. I’m not quite reassured by this though – we’ve heard of governments approving drilling when the oil spill response plan wasn’t anywhere near adequate. The way they act, you’d think Deepwater Horizon happened 100 years ago, instead of last year (come to think of it, that’s probably what they want you to believe).
For all that the oil industry says that they’ve learnt their lessons from last year’s disaster, a lot of things indicate they haven’t. For instance, Cairn claims that, in a worst case scenario, a maximum of 5,000 barrels per day would leak for 37 days at most. BP’s Macondo well (a similar pressure to Cairn's wells) spilled 55,000 barrels a day over 60 days. That’s only one item in a very long list of things that just don’t make sense in Cairn’s oil spill response plan. My personal “favourite” is the bit where they plan on cutting off chunks of oiled sea ice, bring them in a heated warehouse, and separate the melted water from the oil inside (do you think I made it up? It's on page 70 - warning: large pdf.).
Second, the oil giant Exxon signed a deal with the Russian oil company Rosneft to drill for oil in the Russian Arctic. That’s the same deal that BP was hoping to get earlier this year, before their efforts fell through. (Exxon, obviously, is the same company that owned the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in Alaska in 1989, caused a major oil spill, traces of which are still being found today).
This is bad news all over again. The truth is, oil companies are turning their eyes north because the age of easy oil is over. But while in a way, I don’t really expect anything else from them – my expectations tend to be naturally very low when it comes to oil companies – I want to see more from governments and policy-makers. Instead of going to more ridiculously dangerous projects, they should be planning the way for a world beyond oil.
In the same Arctic they are all running to, sea ice extent is currently at its second lowest in recorded history - the previous record dates all the way back to 2007. The signs of the impact of climate change are right under the oil companies’ noses – and they’re preparing to cause some more.
The age of oil (easy or not) is going to end one day, whether we like it or not. Instead of postponing the end, emitting most greenhouse gases, and endangering pristine environments like the Arctic, how about setting up and enforcing strong fuel efficiency standards, or promoting public transport, encouraging cycling etc? We can pretend the problem isn’t happening until it’s too late to fix it – or we could face this like responsible adults, and deal with it.
Which one will you choose?