The Arctic sea ice has retreated steadily for the past 10 years reaching record lows, or close to it, every year. The retreat promises to reveal all manner of riches for those willing to risk everything. Unfortunately there seems to be no shortage of takers.
The world seems to be racing headlong towards a point of no return – one that seems to me best described as a ‘stupidity tipping point’. Allow me to show you:
Faced with possibly the most worrying and unequivocal sign of climate change, our collective response seems not one of sense and urgency, but more of joy and greed. As the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks last week showed, respectable national leaders are about to tip over from the realm of reason to descend into a frenzied resource grab. An ‘Arctic carve up’, where the only lingo is Realpolitik: “protecting our Arctic interests” etc. They race each other to the trough of short term profit seemingly oblivious to the long term risk. The Russians even planted their national flag at the bottom of the polar seafloor beneath the North Pole. If it wasn’t so scary it would be comic.
“The challenges in the region are not just environmental,” said Hilary Clinton in Nuuk before the Arctic Council meeting last week. “The melting of sea ice, for example, will result in more shipping, fishing and tourism, and the possibility to develop newly accessible oil and gas reserves. We seek to pursue these opportunities in a smart, sustainable way that preserves the Arctic environment and ecosystem.”
Sorry Secretary Clinton, what is so smart or sustainable about drilling for the last drop of oil, at the risk of destroying the very Arctic environment and ecosystem that you seek to preserve?
As I write this, a small, lone Scottish energy company is racing up to the High North on a hired rig to begin the only exploratory drilling in the Arctic this year. The stakes are high – and I don’t mean the $900m of other people’s money they have borrowed for their risky gamble of a drilling operation. What I mean is the threat of the most catastrophic oil spill in, in the most fragile habitat on earth, at the most critical time.
The US Minerals Management Service estimated a “one in five” chance of a significant spill occurring over the lifetime of energy activity in just one block of leases in Arctic waters off Alaska. The overall chance of a spill therefore increases as more blocks are explored. The blocks that Cairn Energy plans to drill this year are in the notorious “Iceberg Alley” west of Greenland – where freezing temperatures, extreme weather conditions, and dangerous icebergs from the disintegrating Greenland glaciers reign. Cairn Energy has just a few months to carry out the operation. In the event of a spill, a relief well would probably not be completed in the same season and this could mean that oil could spill from a blowout for years. The highly toxic petrochemical mix would pollute unchecked the nutrient rich Arctic waters that are crucial for the health of the global fisheries. And to cap it off, there is no known way to clean up an oil spill under ice.
If the situation is not twisted enough – add Russian floating nuclear power stations into the mix. Yes you heard me right. While the embattled reactors in Fukushima are still leaking tons of radioactive water into the ocean, Russia is building and testing floating nuclear power stations to power the exploitation of resources, including oil, from the Arctic. Just two weeks ago, a Russian nuclear icebreaker had a radioactive leak and had to be towed back to port from the icy Kara Sea.
From the ‘Arctic carve up’ to the floating nuclear plants and new drilling in iceberg alley, we are witnessing “stupidity tipping events” occurring everywhere. The Arctic is under threat. It is threatened by our addition to oil – oil for which we seem happy to pay any price.
I think it is time for us to take a collective deep breath, and think things through. There are so many untapped smart solutions out there. Instead of drilling for the last drop of oil at the real risk of yet another war and the destruction of our last precious environmental capital, we could, for example, increase fuel efficiency and save 1.1 million barrels of oil - per day - in the EU alone.
Come on, people. Don’t get dragged past the point of no return by Realpolitik. Protect the Arctic. Slow down our consumption of oil. Tap into abundant clean energy.