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 80.

    @78 No amount of warming proves the cause of the warming does it? No amount of melting ice proves the cause, does it?

    The "sound, long since proven" science that only shows low climate sensitivity when measured in the real world, which means CO2 is not a problem. If I'm wrong, show me how I am wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    How much more of the planet are we to destroy before we comprehend that our current numbers cannot be supported by this planet ?

    Overpopulation is the most pressing issue facing humanity in all of history. There is coming a time when there will be nothing left of this planet or us unless we come to terms with our behaviour !

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    If anyone wonders is Mangochutney might be onto something with his endless attempts to undermine the sound, long since proven science that is man made gloabl warming through carbon emissions have a read of this article to see how their try to obsfucate the truth:

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Oh we know where the melted Arctic ice went to this year, don't we? It came to a place near you in showers & thunderstorms & tornado's & cyclones & hailstones as big as people & monsoons & landslides & Pacific/Atlantic storms & tons of snow & flooding, lots & lots of flooding. Now approaching Halloween & Winter we'll get another fill of it with more tons of snow & sleet & rain & & & car splashes!

  • Comment number 76.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 75.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    The exploit, quick dollar, live for now mentality is caused by the lack of effort to live sustainably, not the blame of capitalist but you lazy suckers! Get a grip and take ownership of reality!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    While there is no incentive for big oil to invest in alternative forms of energy production they will continue selling the black stuff at the highest possible price they can achieve - or fix OPEC. We're over a barrel so to speak, and the oil industry knows it.

    The MPs are right to highlight this issue, but they are wrong in their daily dealings with the UK's energy policy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.


    I don't know but it would have to be dramatic like a global scale encouragement to reduce family size?
    USCB estimates say we went from 2 bn to 7 bn people in the last 90 years. So I bet if you plot global population Vs effects of climate change Vs introduction of recycling/energy efficiency you would see we need to start now.
    Cutting out oil isn't an option :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    @44 Pete

    "I think the payback period (for supplying every new home with solar panels) is probably too long."

    You may be right, but the cost would surely tumble if developers bought in large enough numbers. And if the government really wants to be the greenest ever, I dare say it could find a way to make it happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    So a group of MP's 'earned' their wages by a debate on an issue they have NO CONTROL over.....

    Seems to me like everything is the same at Westminster, spending time on constituency or issue's that they could actually make a difference to, is 'out of the window' it seems.

    Same old 'talking shop' and population distraction xD

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    @63 "Only the doubt of those deliberately spreading nonsense that most folk can't understand as nonsense"

    Claiming there is no doubt without evidence is "deliberately spreading nonsense"

    "do you work for the Heartland Institute"

    even if I did it wouldn't matter - what matters is data - got any observational data to show climate sensitivity is high?

    No? "deliberately spreading nonsense"

  • Comment number 68.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    re: dugbydig - 'The problem [is] population growth...campaigners and governments should focus on the bigger picture'


  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    58 Toby Wilson - The problem with that is you end up using food crops for fuel instead of for feeding people. There have already been corn shortages in Mexico because farmers get a higher price selling their corn to the USA for bioethanol.
    It simply isn’t right to let people starve in order to let people drive in an “environmentally friendly” manner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

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

    We're 3 million years into the current ige age, and for the last 40,000 years or so we've been in an interglacial period where we've been steadily warmer. Global temperatutre rises and falls naturally. Irrespective - responsible FF extraction with global use reduction is entirely sensible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    They do say oily fish are good for you! Ummm..... not sure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Trouble is it's too late, all them greedy oil companies know it's there and are encircling like a flock of vultures. Their billions can buy any government or agency that hinders them. Of course we could all choose to not use Arctic oil but we won't people are too spineless UK, most wouldn't give up their cars for a day never mind a week or month that it would take to make the government listen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Yes. It is easy, very easy, to blame oil companies for poluting the Arctic and having lax standards when it comes to environmental protection. Many of the comments may well be true

    However, any time you google something, turn on a light, drive, wear an item of closhing with synthetic fibres or heat your house it is YOU that is encouraging Arctic exploration. BP etc just sell what we buy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    The only call to halt these MPs' ( Muppets for Profits )
    should ask is this vast virulent breeding all over the world
    of people that are not needed and cause all these
    problems and are slave cheap labour for the well off .


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