Oil at the North Pole: Politicians Censor Report on Dangers of Arctic Drilling

By Christoph Seidler in Tromsø, Norway

There's black gold beneath the snow white Arctic -- and oil companies are gearing up to exploit it on a massive scale. Scientists had hoped to warn of the scope of the environmental dangers of Arctic drilling in a new report, but 60 passages have been removed following pressure from the United States and Sweden.

By all accounts, this ought to be a triumphant day for John Calder. The graying director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Arctic Research division spent four years writing his report titled "Arctic Oil and Gas" -- together with 150 scientists with the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP). And now it's finally time for Calder to publicly present his first summary of the report. His presentation in the large auditorium at the University of Tromsø is the highlight of the Arctic Frontiers Conference, at which 500 experts will spend the remainder of the week discussing the outlook for oil and gas production in the ever-warming Arctic.

Arctic environmental perils: In the colder environment, it could be harder to clean up tanker spills or leaks from faulty pipelines.
ESA

Arctic environmental perils: In the colder environment, it could be harder to clean up tanker spills or leaks from faulty pipelines.

"All nations with territory bordering the polar region are working overtime to exploit their oil and natural gas reserves in the Arctic," says Calder, as small beads of sweat collect on his forehead. But it is high time, he adds, to systematically address the potential dangers and problems. "We have compiled a document summarizing the facts on oil and gas production in the Arctic."

Among other things, Calder's report warns against the dangers posed by faulty pipes and tanker accidents. "Oil spills are especially dangerous in the Arctic, because its cold and heavily season-dependent ecosystems take a long time to recover. Besides, it is very difficult to remove the damage from oil spills in remote and cold regions, especially in parts of the ocean where there is ice." Calder also criticizes the destruction of landscapes that comes with building pipelines and describes the way Arctic villages would change once the oil money upends all traditional social structures.

The Phrase “Climate Change" Is Unwelcome

But despite these commendable warnings, there is a significant problem behind the work of Calder and other scientists: it has been devalued by political wrangling. Until recently, the summary ended with more than 60 recommendations the scientists had compiled for politicians. Those recommendations have since disappeared.

The modifications are the result of quarrels within the Arctic Council, which commissioned the AMAP study. Unanimity is required between the permanent members of the Council, which include the Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Canada, the United States and Russia -- but Sweden and the US were opposed to the document. Sources at the Tromsø meeting said the Americans didn't even want the term "climate change" to be used in the final report.

This has left Calder with the task of presenting a paper filled with platitudes and devoid of clear recommendations for action. "I am disappointed," he admits. In addition to the Arctic Council members, many oil companies made life difficult for the scientists, even refusing to provide them with data they had requested. Russian companies, for instance, offered very little information about oil spills. "We believe," says Calder, "that Russia has large amounts of data on the effects of oil accidents on Arctic regions -- and on how it can take decades for them to recover." This sounds convincing. Russia, after all, is responsible for the lion's share of current Arctic production. Russian companies produce 80 percent of Arctic oil and 99 percent of Arctic gas.

Precise data on environmental problems is rarely made public, and in most cases only when they have already reached nearly apocalyptic proportions. One such case happened in 1994, when a pipeline ruptured in 23 locations in Russia’s Komi region, spilling more than 100,000 tons of oil into vulnerable Arctic ecosystems. Areas that were not contaminated right away were damaged during the hectic cleanup operation.

US pipelines have also seen their share of problems. A year and a half ago, oil conglomerate BP was forced to shut down its operations in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay after a leak was discovered in a corroded pipeline.

Oil Companies Are Pushing Northward

Despite all the risks to the environment, the oil companies continue to push northward. "The Arctic will assume a significant share of global energy production," predicts Halwor Engelbretsen of Norwegian oil giant StatoilHydro. The region, says Engelbretsen, adjoins the world's three most important energy markets: Europe, North America and Asia.

Oil from the Arctic is, in fact, doubly attractive for these customers. This is partly the result of constantly rising gasoline prices that are being met with growing concern among drivers at the pump. Arctic oil's attractiveness also stems from geopolitical pressures on European and North American countries eager to reduce their dependency on the supply of energy from the Gulf region. The Arctic promises price stability and a decline in the role of politically unreliable allies in countries all too often controlled by autocratic regimes.

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