MPs' call to halt Arctic drilling amid safety concerns

Arctic oil rig  Greenpeace Drilling has been taking place since the 1920s, but has become more contentious in recent years

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A committee of MPs has called for a halt on drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic until safety is improved.

They say current techniques for dealing with any spill do not inspire confidence.

The Environmental Audit Committee fears that a spill could have caused unprecedented environmental damage.

The MPs want to see a standard pan-Arctic spill response standard, unlimited liability for firms and an Arctic environmental sanctuary.

But the UK has no power over the Arctic - and Arctic states are under pressure to cash in on oil and gas.

The British government has observer status on the Arctic Council - the grouping of Arctic states that discusses Arctic issues.

The committee wants the UK to try to use its influence to improve environmental safeguards but in evidence the MPs heard, that governance of the region was fragmented and weak.

The BBC understands that relations between Russia and the other Arctic nations were particularly problematic.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office, which deals with Arctic issues for the UK, told BBC News: "The Arctic is changing rapidly, primarily as a result of climate change. It is not the Arctic of 20 years ago and it will likely be different again 20 years from now.

"The Government therefore welcomes the useful and timely Environmental Audit Committee's report into protecting the Arctic that explored many of the challenges and opportunities facing the Arctic.

"The Government is carefully considering the findings and recommendations made by the Committee and will formally respond in due course."

Sweden, currently in the chair of the Arctic Council, declined to comment on the moratorium proposal.

Put on ice

Arctic drilling has been happening since the 1920s, but it has become much more contentious as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominated the headlines whilst firms were scrambling to expand production in the far North.

BP's Arctic ambitions are temporarily on hold, but Shell has reputedly invested almost $5bn in its Arctic projects. It suffered a major setback at the weekend after a huge containment dome designed to corral any Arctic spill broke down under trials. Shell abandoned drilling for the winter.

Greenpeace protester Campaigners have called for environmentally damaging activities to end

The cost of extra safety investment may slow Arctic drilling for a while, especially as we are in a glut of cheap shale gas. But the committee heard that Lloyd's estimated that investment in the Arctic could potentially reach $100bn or more over the next 10 years.

The committee heard from several witnesses that safety standards were inadequate. Prof Peter Wadhams, an Arctic ice expert from Cambridge University told them: "If they can't cap the blowout off, or drill a relief well before the winter, the blowout will operate right through the winter months, with oil and gas coming up under the ice.

"The oil coats the bottom of the ice, and if the ice is moving, which is often at about 10km a day, it acts like a great sheet of moving blotting paper, absorbing the oil coming up under it, and carrying it away downstream.

"You will have a trail of oiled ice floes 1,000 kilometres or more in length covering a whole swathe of the Arctic. The oil disappears into the interior of each floe, because new ice grows underneath it, so you have an 'oil sandwich' which lasts all through the winter.

"Then the oil rises to the top surface of the ice in the spring and summer and retains its toxicity. By now it is spread thinly around such a huge area that it is very, very difficult to … get rid of."

BP wouldn't give evidence to the MPs but Shell told them the spill response was adequate.

Coming clean

In fact, the company said that, in some circumstances, Arctic conditions would make it easier to recover oil. It said independent tests in Arctic conditions have shown that ice can slow oil weathering, dampen waves, prevent oil from spreading over large distances, and allow more time to respond.

Shell told MPs that in Alaska available mechanical recovery assets had "a combined capacity that exceeds the worst-case discharge potential of the well we are drilling".

A Scottish-based firm, Cairn Energy, suggested that "sections of oiled ice can be cut out and allow the ice to thaw in a heated warehouse and then separating the oil from its water".

The chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said: "The oil companies should come clean and admit that dealing with an oil spill in the icy extremes of the Arctic would be exceptionally difficult."

"The infrastructure to mount a big clean-up operation is simply not in place and conventional oil spill response techniques have not been proven to work in such severe conditions."

Vicky Wyatt, head of Greenpeace's Arctic campaign, said: "Oil giants like Shell shouldn't be drilling in the fragile and pristine Arctic. By calling for a halt, these MPs have hit the nail on the head. An oil spill in this unique place would be catastrophic for the Arctic."

The committee also highlighted the irony that drilling was eased because the Arctic was already warming much faster than anywhere else on the planet.

Chris Barton, head of international energy security at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), told MPs that "we will still need more and new oil and gas production, and the likelihood is that some of that will come from the Arctic", even "if we hit our 2C (climate change) target".

He acknowledged that "ultimately we are going to need to reduce - if not very largely eliminate -our use of oil but it is not going to happen overnight".

The MPs said: "There appears to be a lack of strategic thinking and policy coherence within Government on this issue, illustrated by its failure to demonstrate how future oil and gas extraction from the Arctic can be reconciled to commitments to limit temperature rises to 2°C. The Government should seek to resolve this matter."

The MPs heard from the Met Office that the decline in sea ice is part of a long-term trend, although this year's very severe melt was likely to have been accelerated by local weather conditions.

Follow Roger Harrabin on Twitter: @rogerharrabin


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  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Shell's response to the MP's qualms is: "in Alaska available mechanical recovery assets had "a combined capacity that exceeds the worst-case discharge potential of the well we are drilling". Yet the MP's still insist: 'The infrastructure to mount a big clean-up operation is simply not in place'. Because of course, what oil companies want to boost profits is a nice long oil slick don't they? Please

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    As long as India & China's Industry is expanding and until their populations level off and then start to decline (which is probably at least 50 years off in India's case) the world will continue to need more oil. Renewables are currently not established enough to plug the gap and nuclear is the only other realistic option.
    We therefore need to concentrate on safety and spill clean-up technology

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    @ 16.
    1 Hour ago

    "cycling to work today, through the haze of smelly 4 wheeled metal petrol guzzlers, driven by lazy backward people"

    What about my donut-smelling vegetable oil guzzler driven by a forward thinking motivated person?

    Car's aren't the problem. It's what is put in them. Every car on the road can run on some safe carbon neutral derivative of food oils or fermented products.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    @54 "caused without doubt"

    No doubt whatsoever?

    The poll that is so often quoted at us deniers is 97% of climate scientists believe cAGW. Setting aside the poll is of only 79 people, it still means 3% of climate scientists have doubts, so your claim of "no doubts" is unsupported.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    After some recent disasters I don't think it's worth the risk of drilling anywhere you can't remedy a crisis quickly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I can not believe the reason they are terminating this is because of safety and the fact they do not have a plan in place for an oil spill nearly 2 million people from around the world have been campaigning for this to be stopped permanently does that no say anything to the Gas giant Shell, No matter how great there plans are if an oil spill happens it will be damaging to so many species. sHELL

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Oh the irony....

    ....we can only drill for oil in the Artic because of man made global warming, caused without doubt, by our excessive burning of fossil fuels.....'d be laughable it was wasn't so serious - well done said group of MPs

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.


    Isn't it lonely being the only penguin living near the north pole?
    Don't you miss all your friends and relatives living at the south pole?

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    As long as the shareholders & soverign states make as much money as they can as fast as they can, & in the inevitable event of a disaster can avoid any real responsibility, cupability or cleanup via a complex corporate structure of "offshore" compaines, sub-contractors that can "dissapear overnight", and/or state ownership that can walk away, then it should all be fine.
    Just fine.
    Nothing to worry

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.


    Glaciologically, ice age implies the presence of extensive ice sheets in the northern and southern hemispheres. By this definition, we are still in an ice age, because the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets still exist.

    The problem is the RATE at which global warming is occurring - all this has happened in the last 250 years. Ice ages last tens of millions of years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    'ultimately we are going to need to reduce - if not very largely eliminate -our use of oil but it is not going to happen overnight' Chris Barton (DECC)

    He's right, but i don't see the govt doing anything to even address breaking that dependency.

    There should be a national 'reduce use' plan, coupled with a concerted effort to replace FF with Renewables. It makes strategic sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    There is more oil in the arctic than in all of the middle east, and given enough time it is all recoverable; there are also new deep reservoir areas being discovered "beneath" many existing fields; they greatly exceed the amounts in the existing fields, all this, too, represents more oil than in all of the middle east; so multiply today's "supply" by three and we have oil a plenty for generations!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Energy companies should be banned from pillaging existing resources and forced into developing desert based technology for solar power, turbines for use in windy places and tidal zones. Why should an oil company drill a resource that has taken millions of years to create out of the earth and then not do anything at all to alleviate the pollution and damage it causes in its use? RENEWABLE ENERGY!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Mmh that Chinese won't care about drilling in the Arctic so when the Greenlanders want to cash in on the oil they'll go to them. But that's ok because we can build anouther 5000 wind turbines to make up for it.

    Which is causing more environmental damage?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    "i think a cyclist hdoes have the right to complain about the fowl air that he or she would be inhaling on their travels"

    I didn't realise that cyclists inhaled chickens !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.


    If we are in an ice age, then shouldn't the ice be increasing rather than melting?

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.


    "Why isn't every new home fitted with solar panels?"

    I think the payback period is probably too long. I would rather see the builders forced to put district heating schemes in place on the new estates that are spring up all over . Even easier in apartment blocks

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @14 CPslashM
    "...At that rate the Arctic ocean will be summer-ice-free in four years. As a drink with the ice melted, temperatures will then shoot up."

    Or, an ice-free Arctic will mean no North Atlantic current, which in turn means fewer nutrients to feed our already depleted fish stocks in the North Atlantic and European waters...

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Cairn Energy's solution to an oil spill in the Arctic is to put the Arctic on defrost? Not to mention the contribution to sea ice loss, the solutions a bit simplistic isn't it? Obviously they haven’t fully committed themselves to a sensible solution. It’s not a surprise but what’s worrying is that they could be allowed near the place with such a lazy attitude toward environmental protection.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Made of/runs on oil:

    The car or bike you used to get to work.
    The building you're sat in
    The computer you're using right now.
    The crisps you're eating.

    Oil is essential to YOUR life.
    You may not like it but don't delude yourself.
    We won't stop until its all gone.


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