Refusal over Arctic drilling ban

Kulluk Shell's drilling rig Kulluk ran aground in Alaska this month

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The UK government has refused to support a moratorium on Arctic drilling, despite new concerns after the grounding of a Shell oil rig.

Ministers say that existing efforts to protect the Arctic environment are more likely to be effective than a ban.

They say it's inappropriate for the UK to take the lead on strategy as it is not an Arctic state.

But MPs on the all-party Environmental Audit Committee say the UK has a moral responsibility.

The committee held an enquiry into protection of the Arctic last year. As part of the investigation they questioned Shell.

They are now recalling the firm for enquiries since its drill rig Kulluk ran aground in Alaska this month.

The Committee recommended in September that there should be an immediate moratorium on drilling in the Arctic until research shows spill responses will work in such extreme conditions; a pan-Arctic oil spill plan is put in place; stricter liability rules for firms are introduced; and an internationally-recognised wilderness protection zone is established.

Greenpeace activists board the Prirazlomnaya Greenpeace activists boarded a Russian drilling platform in the Arctic last year

The MPs also say there is an inconsistency in continuing with Arctic drilling whilst also trying to curb CO2 emissions.

The UK has observer status on the Arctic Council, comprising the states that fringe the region. The MPs want action from the UK government because the Arctic affects British weather; because British ships and oil firms are hoping to exploit it, because UK science is vital in the region and because the Arctic - they say - is a treasure for the planet as a whole.

The government has endorsed the committee's concern over the pace of warming in the Arctic, but rejected many of its specific suggestions.

It says Arctic oil will be needed to replace dwindling global reserves and argues that this should not prevent corresponding CO2 restrictions.

Enforcement issues

Ministers say they will produce a policy framework this year for Arctic interests. They will also work through the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to cut emissions of black carbon, which speeds the melting by making ice less reflective.

They will work with other nations towards promoting marine protected zones in the open ocean, including the Arctic.

But the government has stopped short of supporting the notion of an Arctic sanctuary, promoted by Greenpeace; it says it cannot govern liability for spills in the Arctic; and it has no expertise in setting rules for Arctic drilling.

The committee says the government has rejected an opportunity to show global leadership. Its chair Joan Walley told BBC News: "We understand the sensitivity of the issue of jurisdiction in this case. But a few years ago the Prime Minister rode with huskies in the Arctic to demonstrate his commitment on environmental issues.

"The Arctic is a resource for the whole world and we think that the (British) government can take a moral lead by speaking out strongly on this issue and calling for much more sweeping action than we're seeing at the moment. The safeguards are simply not in place for the Arctic.

"More specifically, the grounding of the Kulluk raises serious questions about the safety of Shell's operations in the Arctic."

Although there is huge interest from oil and gas firms to exploit the Arctic, developments in the region are in fact moving very slowly - partly as some Arctic nations insist on tight standards. But a source in the Arctic Council told BBC News that enforcement of rules in Russia was particularly slack, and said it was problematic ensuring consistent standards across the region.

Negotiations on emissions and risks to shipping within the IMO have been slow, and the MPs criticised the IMO for declining to give evidence to the committee.

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