Yesterday, the UK’s wildest wildcat oil company, Cairn Energy, received the news it has been waiting for when the Greenland Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum (BMP) gave final permission for the company to start its 2011 Arctic drilling programme in Baffin Bay over the coming months.

This announcement in itself isn’t particularly surprising – Greenland’s desire to become a global oil powerhouse is well documented, and I suspect that a relatively small company like Cairn wouldn’t be spending hundreds of millions of euros hiring two huge drilling vessels, assorted support ships, anchor handling tugs, ice management craft and transferring them all the way across the North Atlantic unless it was pretty sure of getting an official green light.

What did raise some eyebrows was that Cairn wasn’t given permission to drill at all 10 of the sites they wanted to drill at this season. They can only drill in seven areas and no official reason was given to explain why, though the BMP was quick to point out that it would be undertaking stricter monitoring of drilling operations this year. That’s all well and good, but until we see a fully completed oil spill response plan explaining precisely how Cairn plans to successfully cap a leak a mile below a frozen sea surface covered by meters of ice, forgive me if I don’t break open the  ’34 Pol Roger just yet.

After all, in its own Environmental Impact Assessment for this year, the company admitted it had no idea how a spill would impact the region in the winter, saying that all its “spill scenarios were simulated within the proposed drilling window, corresponding to the ice-free period.” This is particularly worrying given that a Canadian company specialising in oil spills concluded that “there is really no solution or method today that we’re aware of that can actually recover [spilt] oil from the Arctic.”

Even more of a surprise was that this news comes at exactly the same time as major international oil companies have started the application process for new drilling elsewhere in the Arctic, and just as scientists have published even gloomier warnings about the rate of temperature rise and ice melt in the region.

Over in Alaska, Shell has started submitting applications to open up to 10 new exploratory oil wells next year, 4 in the Beaufort Sea and a further 6 in the Chukchi Sea. Though the US Environmental Protection Agency effectively stymied Shell’s drilling programme this year, the Anglo-Dutch giant has nailed its colours firmly to the polar mast. It is “very cautiously optimistic” about getting hold of the estimated 25bn barrels of oil off Alaska, and has already it has spent a staggering $3.5bn in the state.

All this news comes hot on the heels of further scientific research into just how bad climate change is affecting the region. A study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme found that the quickening rate of climate change in the Arctic could cause global sea levels to rise by up to 1.6m by the end of the century. Because the rate of warming is so rapid, with the last six years being the warmest on record, the Arctic Ocean could become ice-free within 30 or 40 years, much sooner than experts previously warned.

The starting gun for race for the High North has been fired just as scientists are telling us the future of the frozen Arctic is looking increasingly bleak.

With this in mind, later this week all eyes will be on the Arctic Council, which is meeting in Nuuk, Greenland. Attendees, including US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, are set to hammer out a deal to open up the region to future development. It doesn’t look good. Even though the Arctic is undergoing dramatic changes due to climate change, pollution and ocean acidification, the Arctic Council has done almost nothing to protect this fragile region.

Talking won’t save the Arctic. Instead we need to see measures to defend the region from oil drilling, destructive fishing and shipping.

So is it all doom and gloom? Not just yet.

We have a choice. We can still change course, go beyond oil and protect the Arctic, but only if we can force the foot-dragging corporations and the politicians who back them to embrace measures that can curb our dependence on oil.