As oil giant Shell calls a temporary halt to its exploration activities in the Arctic because of concerns over safety, lawmakers in Britain are urging international governments to seek a moratorium on offshore drilling in the region. Environmentalists say an oil spill could cause catastrophic, irreversible damage. But with global energy demands set to rise, some say it’s time to look at such ‘unconventional resources.’
Last winter in the Arctic, the Russian tanker ‘Renda’ carved its way to the remote Alaskan port of Nome.
Not long ago this voyage - made in December and January - would have been impossible. The warming climate means thinner ice. More and more vessels are plying these routes year-round. Many of them are involved in the search for oil and gas. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil beneath the United States' Arctic waters alone.
Oil giants, including state-owned Russian firm Rosneft and Royal Dutch Shell, have already spent billions of dollars prospecting for hydrocarbons.
But Glada Lahn from the policy institute Chatham House, says climate change can create problems as well as opportunities.
“With the warming temperatures in the Arctic, the frequency of ice breaking off, that speeds up and so you perhaps have more icebergs in the way of operations," said Lahn. "The other problem is increasing severity of storms and as the ice retreats from the coastlines, there’s more chance of larger waves leading to coastal erosion and damage to infrastructure.”
Corporate video animations posted on the Internet by Shell illustrate the company’s drilling activities in the Arctic. Shell has abandoned its Arctic exploration until after the coming winter, citing the failure of a key piece of safety equipment.
According to analyst Glada Lahn, safety will be the key to any successful oil exploration in the Arctic.
“It’s been more difficult in the U.S. and Canada. The memories of Deepwater Horizon, and even before that Exxon Valdez, are still fresh in people’s minds, and so there’s been a lot more public scrutiny of the companies’ spill response plans, for instance,” said Lahn.
VOA did approach Shell for an interview but the company said no one was available.
After political problems appeared to have derailed the deal, it appears a joint venture between Rosneft and BP to drill in the Arctic could be back on.
But not all oil giants are joining the rush. The CEO of the French firm Total recently said “a leak would do too much damage to the image of the company.”
In August activists from the environmental group "Greenpeace" chained themselves to a Russian ship working from Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya rig in the Barents Sea.
"This is a peaceful attempt by us as Greenpeace to try to bring some sanity and some urgency, to get Gazprom, Shell, and other companies that are thinking about drilling in the Arctic to stop, to reconsider and understand the consequences of that action that will destroy our children's and grandchildren's future," said Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo.
Scientists warn that a big oil spill in the Arctic would remain for decades in a kind of ‘ice-and-oil sandwich.’
Nevertheless oil companies like Shell say it will be necessary in the coming decades to look at unconventional resources such as the Arctic.
Environmental campaigners say that in such a pristine environment, the risks are simply too high.