by Kiley Kroh
Joining the chorus of influential voices in opposition to offshore drilling in the Arctic, British lawmakers today called for a halt to drilling in the Arctic Ocean until necessary steps are taken to protect the region from the potentially catastrophic consequences of an oil spill.
In a report citing the myriad risks and challenges of operating in the untested region, the Environmental Audit Committee of Britain’s House of Commons urged action to halt oil and gas drilling in the Arctic until new safeguards are put in place.
Lawmaker Caroline Lewis, member of the committee, explained their concern that “the race to carve up the Arctic is accelerating faster than our regulatory or technical capacity to manage it.”
An oil spill anywhere in the region could impact all of the surrounding Arctic nations, prompting the committee to call for the Arctic Council to draft a universal standard on disaster response. In addition, the report recommends a “much higher, preferably unlimited, financial liability regime for oil and gas operations.” Until there is greater certainty that individual companies and the Arctic nations are prepared to respond to a spill in the remote and unpredictable region, the committee maintains the Arctic Ocean should be off-limits to drilling.
The British parliament is yet another authoritative body expressing serious concern about the risks presented by offshore drilling in the planet’s last great frontier.
Earlier this year, insurance giant Lloyd’s of London issued a report warning that responding to an oil spill in a region that is “highly sensitive to damage” would present “multiple obstacles, which together constitute a unique and hard-to-manage risk.”
Soon after, German bank WestLB announced it would not provide financing to any offshore oil or gas drilling in the region, saying the “risks and costs are simply too high.”
Hamstrung by ice clinging to Alaska’s northern shore much longer than usual (ironically during a year with record-low ice) and a series of mishaps with its equipment, Shell Oil announced earlier this week that it would only pursue preparatory drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer. But as the company lays the foundation for a “multi-year exploration program” in the region, it is critical to note that the glaring deficiencies in science, infrastructure, and technology must be addressed.
Seen as the bellwether for climate change, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet – leaving industries such as shipping, tourism, fisheries, and oil and gas chomping at the bit to stake their claim on the Arctic’s previously inaccessible riches. The rapid industrialization of an already fragile ecosystem could be completely devastating. With Arctic sea ice shrinking to the smallest extent ever recorded this summer, the committee’s report warns that “such development could result in significant environmental damage in a region already feeling the effects of climate change more than the rest of the planet.”
Michael Conathan, the Center for American Progress’ oceans policy director, explained the insanity of pursuing oil drilling in a part of the world under serious threat from climate change in an interview with E&E TV this week:
“I hope the irony isn’t lost on people: it is the fact that we have burned so many fossil fuels that have led to climate change that has allowed the ice to recede and that has subsequently now opened up these areas to drilling, and our response is to go in and extract more fossil fuels that we can burn and perpetuate the cycle.”
Not only is Shell ignoring the advice of some of the largest financial institutions and risk assessors, it’s also ignoring the world’s climate scientists.
Kiley Kroh is Associate Director of Oceans Communications at the Center for American Progress.