Dave Walsh is currently on board the Esperanza as part of the Arctic Under Pressure expedition 2010.

Even now, as the disastrous situation in the temperate waters of the Gulf of Mexico continues, oil companies are still pushing for opening up the Arctic for oil drilling. Last month the Obama administration commendably postponed the planned exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska, pending further investigation, and a plan to dump 1,200 litres of crude oil as a “test” into Lancaster Sound in the Canadian Arctic has been shelved, following major opposition. Meanwhile, Greenland last week has announced a plan to start drilling in Baffin Bay. My Google Alerts for the word “Arctic” are suddenly full of fossil fuel industry references, much more than this time last year.

It’s a bitter irony that climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is opening up the Arctic to the very industries that are helping put the Arctic under pressure in the first place.

The methods employed further south to deal with a warm water oil spill in good weather, with readily available personnel and equipment, have so far failed. Dealing with a similar spill in subzero conditions (possibly even in the dark of polar winter) with drifting sea ice and icebergs in the remote Arctic, without anything like the good weather or infrastructure of the Gulf of Mexico, would be a nightmare. In Greenland, the oil drilling is planned for Disko Bay, an area notorious for its icebergs – it’s even known as “Iceberg Alley”, and special vessels would need to be employed just to keep these massive hunks of ice away from the oilrigs. Can you imagine?

Up here in the Arctic Ocean, we have in recent days encountered huge areas of sea ice drifting at a speed of 1.5 knots – that’s pretty bloody fast, and not something you want to try and block with a manmade, stationary object like an oil rig. The technology to clean up oil spills in sea ice doesn’t exist today, but that doesn’t mean that “learning as we go” can even be an option.

A 2009 Arctic marine shipping assessment by the Arctic Council (made up of countries who have Arctic territory), described the possibility of a “cleanup” of oil spills in Arctic conditions as “extremely challenging,” “limited, and “unreliable and untested”. No kidding.

Politicians like US Senator Mark Begich are demanding guarantees of compensation money from oil companies planning to drill in the US Arctic – something that misses the point entirely. Compensation following an Arctic oil spill might reimburse humans in the short term (in the case of Exxon Valdez, it actually 20 years), but no amount of financial compensation will either negate or reverse damage done to the environment those humans earn their living from. To suggest otherwise is to assume that dung can be put back in the cow.

The fact is, after hundreds of years of Arctic exploration, we are still learning about its climate and ecosystem – very little has known at all about the ecosystem below the waves. That’s why the Esperanza is here, shining a light on the incredible ocean life below the Arctic Ocean waves. We want the precautionary principle applied in the Arctic – roughly put, if you don’t understand an ecosystem, you shouldn’t even begin to mess with it.

The Arctic needs an international moratorium on industrial development, and a proper governance system put in place. The United States has already made a commendable move of its own, halting all commercial fishing in its own historically ice covered Arctic waters off Alaska, and citing the precautionary principle; it simply doesn’t have enough information about the ecosystem to proceed, in good conscience, with industrial fishing in the area. Now other countries need to get involved, and work together to protect the Arctic. The means to do this exists – it just a matter of political will.


Photos:© Nick Cobbing / Greenpeace