Monday, June 20, 2011

The Government fails to stand up for the Arctic environment

Greenpeace protest over Arctic drilling
On Friday Greenpeace's director Kumi Naidoo was apprehended while trying to board a drilling rig off the coast of Greenland, in order to stop Cairn Energy drilling for oil and gas in this critically sensitive environment.

Speaking before he set out to scale the platform, Mr Naidoo, said: "The Arctic oil rush is such a serious threat to the climate and to this beautiful fragile environment that I felt Greenpeace had no choice to return, so I volunteered to do it myself."

Greenpeace feels compelled to act because the UK Government won't.

Last week, Energy Minister Charles Hendry said in public for the first time what had thus far only been said in private - that it is UK policy to support drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic.

Since when did this become UK policy? And why has the House of Commons never debated it?

Hendry told an energy conference that Arctic drilling is "entirely legitimate" and that, "given the ability to carry out this work safely, this should be part of the work of the industry".

Energy and mineral companies are taking a great deal of interest in the area now that climate change has caused the ice cap over the Arctic Ocean to melt during the summer months more than ever before in recent history, thereby easing access to the seabed.

A report issued by the US Geological Survey in 2009 estimated that the Arctic contains as much as 13% of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered gas.

Of course, this is just speculation, but the melting ice has exposed something else: an absence of regulation to protect this fragile and beautiful environment.

Britain, not being an Arctic state, nevertheless has clear interests in the region. It is an observer on the Arctic Council, along with France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland and Spain.

The Council's full members are Canada, Denmark (representing also Greenland and Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA. It has several working groups which investigate the environmental and social aspects of developing the area.

But the Council is not a legally empowered body. It does not have the muscle to veto the actions of members, who in turn are not obliged to act in accordance with its deliberations.

In fact, it is a talk shop, which gives the appearance of collaboration between interested parties, while behind the scenes they frantically scurry to gain competitive advantage over access to the trillions of dollars of riches on the continental shelves surrounding the ocean. "There is in fact no strong consensus between the states," comments Anna Galkina, a researcher on this issue at think-tank Platform.

British companies BP, Shell and Cairn Energy are amongst those behind this struggle, which has recently seen BP spectacularly falling out with Russian giant Rosneft despite heavy UK government lobbying on its behalf.

BP's troubles seem all the more ironic when you know that on 14 January 2011 BP CEO Bob Dudley and Eduard Khudainatov, CEO of the Russian state oil giant Rosneft, following a meeting with Vladimir Putin, signed their original agreement in the presence of our Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne.

In the absence of any regulatory body capable of controlling this oil and gas rush, it has fallen to NGOs to try and put a brake on exploration.

Cairn Energy is at the forefront of the rush and is about to commence drilling off the Greenland coast. Twice this year Greenpeace has attempted to stop them with direct action, and in response Cairn has just obtained an injunction preventing them from boarding their rigs.

Hendry's phrase, "the ability to carry out this work safely", cannot be tested in public because Cairn refuses to publish its Oil Spill Response Plan despite a petition signed by almost 50,000 people and a highly unusual admonition by a judge in Amsterdam, who said that doing so would make absolute sense, even to the company concerned, if it really wanted to maximise the chances of preventing an accident.

I am putting in an FOI request to find out if Hendry, or anyone at DECC, had been shown Cairn's Oil Spill Response Plan for its Greenland operation before coming out with such unequivocal support. Because if he has seen it, why can't we all? And if he hasn't, how can he so confidently support the company?

Or has he forgotten BP's rather costly adventure in the Gulf of Mexico last year?

The US National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling concluded in its final report in January 2011 that "detailed geological and environmental information does not exist for the Arctic exploration areas and industry and support infrastructures are least developed, or absent

Lord Howell, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is one minister heavily responsible for UK policy on the Arctic, and is involved in lobbying to support British oil companies' commercial interests abroad.

Yet the British Parliament has not had a chance to debate and decide this policy. The only time it has come remotely near to being discussed was in a poorly attended and very short debate in the House of Lords on the 6th December 2010, led at 8.02pm by Lord Jay.

There, Howell admitted that besides ostensibly protecting the Arctic environment, "our second aim is to protect crucial UK energy supplies from the region and promote UK business interests. Thirdly, we want to ensure access to fisheries and transport routes in the region, including the ones that may open up in the future-not just in summer but in winter."

Only then did he say that a fourth aim is "to promote wider UK Government objectives with regard to sustainable development, environmental protection and climate change".

It's not that he is unaware of the fact that all of this exploration is only possible because of climate change. He even commented on "the irony that the melting of the ice means that all sorts of possibilities open up for access to the huge hydrocarbon resources in the region." But he only talked of "how" - not whether - these "colossal reserves" might "be got out economically and in line with all the other restraints that the world wants."

I asked the Department for Energy and Climate Change if they would clarify their position. This is what I received in response: "regulation of Cairn's drilling proposals in the Arctic is a matter for the Greenland Government. As an observer in the Arctic Council, the UK has contributed to the development of the guidelines recently agreed by the Council on oil and gas, and supports robust provisions on environmental protection and sustainability in Arctic waters.

“More generally, the UK is participating in the G20 initiative to promote best practice and regulatory standards, to ensure that oil and gas activities carried out anywhere in the world align with industry best practice and are managed so as to ensure minimum impacts to the environment.”

Nothing about climate change.

The Arctic Council's guidelines on exploration were in fact agreed in 2009. They include acknowledgement of the principles of "polluter pays" and "the precautionary principle", and they recognise that the area "has high sensitivity to oil spill impacts and the least capacity for natural recovery".

Given the overwhelming threat of climate change, many NGOs, including Greenpeace and WWF, are demanding that no fossil fuels be extracted from the area. They are calling for the Arctic to become a scientific reserve, as the Antarctic is, and left alone.

There is, sadly, little chance of this. An important discussion document published in Washington in January this year - The Shared Future: A Report of the Aspen Institute Commission On Arctic Climate Change - supposedly takes "a hard and new look at climate change in the Arctic".

But does it call for a moratorium and a ban on drilling in the area? No. Its main recommendation is that "governance in the Arctic marine environment, which is determined by domestic and international laws and agreements, including the Law of the Sea, should be sustained and strengthen by a new conservation and sustainable development plan using an ecosystem-based management approach".

Amongst its 10 principles of Arctic governance is number 4: "Avoid exacerbating changes that may be difficult or impossible to reverse in temperature, sea-ice extent, pH and other key physical, chemical and biological ecosystem parameters."

It's hard to see how any exploration can go on in such harsh conditions which do not contain the risk of doing so. But the document falls short of admitting this.

Instead, it says that Arctic governments should take immediate steps to begin developing an Arctic Marine Conservation and Sustainable Development Plan by 2012, which "should also open the door to a new model of natural resource governance in the Arctic that promotes an ethic of stewardship and multinational use of best management practices".

Fine words. But while energy companies can't even publish their safety plans there is fat chance of this happening.

Diana Wallis, Vice President of the European Parliament and MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, and the Green Party's Caroline Lucas are alone amongst legislators in pushing for stronger regulation. Wallis' website allows people to vote on whether there should be a moratorium on oil exploration in the Arctic. Two thirds of voters there think there should be.

What she and I want to know is: why isn't the British Government standing up for the Arctic? Why is it caving into commercial interests?

And why can't there be a proper debate in the House of Commons on this crucial issue?


Anonymous said...

Could you possibly explain how the UK Government would have a legal case for preventing drilling in Greenland territorial waters? Surely this is a matter for Greenland or Denmark?
Furthermore, if the UK did legislate, it would be in breach of EU law on free trade between member countries.

David said...

The UK Government can have a policy on whether it supports drilling in the Arctic Circle, and therefore whether it will or will not support and lobby on behalf of British companies wishing to do so. It has admitted that it does have a policy in favour of this. It could change this policy to be either noncomittal or actively against this, without the need for legislation. It could support the EU VP's work in this regard in Brussels, for example, to get the law changed at EU level.

Fred Z said...

I have read a lot of stupid posts here but this is the stupidest one ever.

The recent BP spill and the one in Prince William Sound have proven beyond doubt that even massive oil spills are not material.

The Brits have no business whatever commenting about what we who live and work in the actual Arctic do. I don't complain about what dingbats in Machynlleth : Powys : United Kingdom do in their part of the world nor do I send hysterical shrieks to the Canadian parliament demanding that my government interfere with yours. I expect the same courtesy, so buzz off.

I called this one the stupidest post ever because of the reference to some judge in Amsterdam "admonishing" someone. Jesus H. Christ, who gives a rats ass what the Dutch judiciary says about any goddam thing? These are the human cockroaches who forced Geert Wilders to trial.

David said...

"not material"? I dare you to go in person and tell that to the people whose livelihoods have been ruined on the Gulf coast! You really don't care what damage to people or nature is caused to get your precious oil do you?

Fred Z said...

David, you need to decide if you are a tree hugger worrying about the environment, or a populist worrying about jobs for the little people. Because if the latter, the little people need gasoline, a lot of it, they like to drive big cars, motorcycles, atvs and big boats, cuz that's what they do with their livelihood.

Anyway, you're wrong about that too. I challenge you to find me people on the Gulf coast whose livelihoods have been "ruined" by the spill. They suffered damage, they got paid by BP. Mostly over-paid. Up here we ask "How do you transform a scrub bull into a very valuable pure-bred?" Answer: Get him hit by an oil well service truck. I have yet to meet a land owner or business owner who did not publicly complain about the vast damage oil operations caused him and in private laugh his head off at the stupid amounts of money he was able to extort for the "damage".

The spills caused no lasting ecological damage. None. So yes, not material. Your counter comment simply ignored that fact and tried to misdirect into some emotional response about the poor, poor little peeps.

Newsflash: The peeps hate you and your stupid, interfering, nonsensical, ivory tower opinions. They want gasoline and they want it cheap and that's good because every thought you have about the environment is wrong.

But you keep blogging, y'hear? Because it gives us our only hope of seeing how your lot think and perhaps we can evade Schiller's dictum about wrestling with stupidity.

David said...

And I guess you'd give a loaded gun to a lunatic just because he asked for it. It's the selfish behaviour of narrowminded self-centered gasoline junkies like you and the 'little people' whom you both express contempt for and yet want on your side that is propelling the world into the mess it's in.

It's not even as if you have to sacrifice lifestyle to make any difference. But you are ideologically driven and can't see beyond your own righteous anger.