by Kiley Kroh and Michael Conathan
Analysts at one of the world’s largest insurance markets are warning that offshore drilling in the Arctic would “constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk” and urged companies to “think carefully about the consequences of action” before exploring for oil in the region.
Lloyd’s of London, a large UK-based insurance pool, issued a report today outlining the severe environmental and economic risk of oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters. The stunning report comes as Royal Dutch Shell prepares for exploratory drilling operations in the Arctic – even while leading experts warn that there’s virtually no infrastructure in place to clean up an oil spill in the fragile region.
As Arctic ice continues to melt due to climate change, Lloyd’s estimates the region will attract $100 billion in new investment over the next decade. However, analysts warn that responding to an oil spill in a region “highly sensitive to damage” would present “multiple obstacles, which together constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk.”
The environmental consequences of disasters in the Arctic have the potential to be worse than in other regions. The resilience of the Arctic’s ecosystems in terms of withstanding risk events is weak, and political sensitivity to a disaster is high. As a result, companies operating in the Arctic face significant reputational risk.
It’s easy for oil companies to dismiss environmentalists concerned about the Arctic as politically-motivated. But when a centuries-old company that has made billions of dollars judging risks and insuring everything from Betty Grable’s legs to the World Trade Center’s new Freedom Tower, thinks an operation might be a little too edgy for them, it ought to make oil companies stand up and take notice.
Richard Ward, Lloyd’s chief executive, “urged companies not to ‘rush in [but instead to] step back and think carefully about the consequences of that action’ before research was carried out and the right safety measures put in place.”
Lloyd’s report includes a laundry list of reasons why oil companies ought to hit the pause button on offshore Arctic drilling, including:
- Significant knowledge gaps across the Arctic need to be closed urgently
- Arctic conditions will remain challenging and often unpredictable
- The environmental consequences of disasters in the Arctic are likely to be worse than in other regions
- The politics of Arctic economic development are controversial and fluid.
Here in the U.S., Shell is on the brink of permits to begin drilling in the pristine Arctic Ocean this summer, despite the concerns of environmental groups, Alaska Native communities, and even federal agencies such as the US Coast Guard and NOAA. Aside from the long-term climate risk, their chief concerns revolve around Shell’s ability to respond to an oil spill challenging region – which can be dark, frigid, extremely remote, and sorely lacks even the most basic infrastructure.
The challenges posed by these harsh and unpredictable conditions are outlined in the Center for American Progress report, Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling: America’s Inability to Respond to an Oil Spill in the Arctic. As the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy approaches, it is critical to remember the plethora of personnel and resources needed to facilitate the largest, most coordinated oil spill response effort in our nation’s history. A similar undertaking would be impossible in the Arctic.
These warnings are echoed in the Lloyd’s report, as well as in a new independent federal report issued by the Government Accountability Office, which concluded that Shell’s “dedicated capabilities do not completely mitigate some of the environmental and logistical risks associated with the remoteness and environment of the region.”
As both the CAP report and Lloyd’s recommend, a substantial commitment to science and monitoring is necessary to “close knowledge gaps, reduce uncertainties and manage risks.” In addition, “full-scale exercises based on worst-case scenarios of environmental disaster should be run by companies,” as well as a significant investment in infrastructure and monitoring to facilitate “safe economic activity.”
If the world’s largest insurance market is warning companies to slow down because we are unprepared for the enormous risks of Arctic exploration, then the U.S. ought to think carefully before we encourage drilling.
Kiley Kroh is Associate Director of Communications for Oceans Communications at the Center for American Progress. Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.