Tag Archives: arctic

Oil Drilling in the Arctic and Pollution Impact

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Arctic Council: why China, Japan, and the EU Hope to Join

“The Arctic is hot,” says Gustaf Lind, the Swedish ambassador who will chair the Arctic Council meeting in Stockholm on March 28th-29th. The other members are America, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Russia, plus six non-voting representatives of indigenous Arctic peoples such as Sami and Inuit.   he top of the world is warming roughly twice as fast as the rest of it: water in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is roughly 3.5°C warmer than a century ago. When dark, absorptive seawater replaces bright, reflective ice, it retains more heat. That speeds global warming. Largely as a result, the Arctic now has less sea-ice, for the time of year, than for millennia. Most scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to begin to be largely ice-free in summer sometime between 2020 and 2050.

As the ice retreats, rich Arctic deposits of oil, gas and other minerals become accessible. High commodity prices make them lucrative. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic has around a quarter of the world’s undiscovered and recoverable oil and gas reserves.

New commercial trans-Arctic shipping routes will sharply cut the distance between Europe and Asia. In 2011 a Russian supertanker, aided by two nuclear icebreakers, became the first such vessel to traverse the North-east Passage across the Arctic, hugging the Siberian coastline (Russians call it the “northern route”). Countries that ply global trade lanes, and make the ships that do, see the potential. China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, plus Italy, have applied to join the Arctic Council as observers; so has the European Union.

That, too, has generated some heat. A Norwegian newspaper reported in January that Norway was threatening to block China’s bid for observer status, part of a row that started when the Oslo-based Nobel prize committee awarded the 2010 peace prize to a jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. All sides deny that (and Norway, like the other Nordic countries, is generally an enthusiast for enlargement). But officials in Oslo are not the only ones with mixed feelings about Chinese membership. Russia, which owns half the Arctic coastline and the lion’s share of the region’s resources, is also reluctant. Canada, which displays distinctive robustness on Arctic issues, is not minded to admit the EU, which tiresomely bemoans the annual seal slaughter.

Sweden says it wants to settle the observer issue by May 2013. The ostensible ground for delay is over the newcomers’ role. But it already seems that this will be limited to watching and listening—as it is for the six existing observers: countries like Britain and Poland with long traditions of Arctic activity. No Arctic country is in a hurry to expand the club. Despite excited predictions of a dangerous scramble for Arctic resources, the region’s sovereignty is fairly clearly defined. The Arctic is the polar opposite of Antarctica, figuratively as well as literally. It is not a disputed land mass surrounded by ocean. It is an ocean plus some almost entirely delimited land. It has no need of an international treaty like the one that governs Antarctica.

A handful of disputes rumble on: about a few rocks located between Greenland (a Danish fief) and Canada; and between Canada and America over the status of the North-west Passage shipping route. A bigger row could yet erupt over continental shelves, most of which are being slowly delimited under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. But all these squabbles are between the Arctic countries themselves, not with outsiders.

The members think their club is working rather well as it is. Founded in 1996, partly to promote joint scientific research, it focuses on activities such as pollution, marine conservation and mapping. It does this well. Last year members signed their first legally binding agreement, on search-and-rescue missions. Next will be a deal on responding to oil spills. Russia, which caused a flurry of concern in 2007, when an explorer called Artur Chilingarov planted his country’s flag under the North Pole, is now oozing amity. In 2011 it ended one of the Arctic’s longest-running disputes, by reaching agreement over its maritime border with Norway.

Reassured that they have little to squabble over, Arctic countries are finding that the enormous costs of research, policing and energy exploration are better shared. Hence, for example, the eagerness of Russia’s state-owned energy companies to form joint ventures, such as that agreed last year between Rosneft and Exxon Mobil in the Kara Sea. The development of Arctic shipping-lanes will also be made easier with good regional relations: there is talk of either Iceland or Norway developing a transshipment port to serve Russia’s north-eastern route.

The message is clear: welcome to the new world of the warming Arctic. But remember who runs it.

Arctic Politics: Cosy amid the thaw, Economist, March 24,2012, at 61

Environmental Impact of Shipping and Resource Extraction in the Arctic

A rapid increase in shipping in the formerly ice-choked waterways of the Arctic poses a significant increase in risk to the region’s marine mammals and the local communities that rely on them for food security and cultural identity, according to an Alaska Native groups and the Wildlife Conservation Society who convened at a recent workshop.  The workshop—which ran from March 12–14—examined the potential impacts to the region’s wildlife and highlighted priorities for future management of shipping in the region. The meeting included participants from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Eskimo Walrus Commission, Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Ice Seal Committee, Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Other participants included the University of Alaska, government agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Arctic Research Commission, and the Marine Mammal Commission, and regional Alaska Native groups such as Kawerak Inc., North Slope Borough, Northwest Alaska Borough, and Association of Village Council Presidents.

At issue is the effect of climate change on Arctic waters, which over the last few decades have become increasingly ice-free during the summer and fall. The lengthening of the open-water season has led to new industrial developments, including oil and gas activities and a rising number of large maritime vessels transiting either the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Arctic from Europe, or the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic. Whichever route is being used, the only gateway to the Pacific is through the Bering Strait—an important migratory pathway for marine mammals. In spring and fall for example, almost the entire bowhead whale and walrus populations migrate through this narrow strait.

In the past, multi-year sea ice in the Arctic basin that extended to both the Canadian and Russian Federation coastlines had been a serious obstacle for large ships.  “The disappearance of summer sea ice from the region’s coastal areas is leading to major changes in this part of the world,” said Dr. Martin Robards, Director of WCS’s Beringia Program and one of the event’s organizers. “The presence of large ocean-going vessels is expected to increase as the region becomes more attractive to both international shipping and extractive industries seeking minerals, oil, and gas. The northern sea route is 30 percent shorter than the comparable route linking northern Europe to Asia via the Suez Canal, which only supports the conclusion that the Bering Strait is likely to get busier. We need to ensure that the mutual interests shared by Alaska Natives and the conservation community for the health and safety of marine mammals are included in the protection of the region’s natural resources.”

A number of studies have raised significant concerns about the impacts from shipping and resource extraction on large whales. The North Atlantic right whale, a close relative of the bowhead whale, occurs in heavily industrialized waters of the East Coast of North America. Estimated to number only between 400-450 individuals, the North Atlantic right whale is threatened by mortalities from vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Based on scientific insights that reflected the needs of these whales, new speed restrictions, navigational alternatives, and vessel tracking systems in areas of importance to North Atlantic right whales were successfully implemented in Canadian and U.S. waters, minimizing the possibility of large vessels striking whales. Similar accommodations—particularly in funnel areas such as the Bering Strait—will become essential as vessel traffic increases, if strikes and other impacts to bowhead whales are to be minimized.

Apart from the risk of ship strikes, large vessels also emit low-frequency noises that can disrupt important behavioral functions for whales and potentially impair their ability to communicate and navigate. Degradation of the acoustic habitat can have consequences not only for whales, but also for other marine mammals such as walrus, and even fish.

“There is mounting evidence that human-generated sounds in the marine environment have negative effects on marine life,” said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program. “An increase in background noise from increased shipping, coupled with increases in underwater noise from industrial activities and other potential stressors, is of great concern for the Arctic’s marine species and their important habitats.”

Another threat to bowheads and other Arctic denizens: an oil spill in a region with little or no capacity for containment.“The lack of international response capability to a spill in these waters is a serious concern in light of the increased interest in oil and gas exploration, or the rise in transportation of petroleum products by tankers through the Arctic,” added Robards. “A comprehensive approach is clearly needed to prepare for a potential environmental disaster in a region where marine mammals transit both national and international waters.”

Outcomes from the workshop will help inform both future research on the effects of development on fragile Arctic ecosystems and support Alaska natives as they seek to actively protect the health and safety of the marine mammal populations they rely on. This will help engage local communities and their representatives with the regulatory decisions being made by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. and Russian Governments, and the International Maritime Organization.

“The involvement of local communities in this process is crucial for both the cultural integrity and the conservation of the Arctic,” said Dr. Caleb McClennen, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Marine Conservation Program. “This workshop will ensure that Alaska’s Native organizations have a seat at the table for the key decisions on the future of this biologically diverse region

Arctic Peoples Convene to Address Potential Impacts of Increased Shipping on Marine Mammals, Press Release, Wildlife Conservation Society, Mar. 16, 2012

The New Economic Appropriations of the Arctic: great powers versus the newcomers

China, Brazil and India want seats on the Arctic Council as global warming creates new opportunities for shipping and resource extraction in the vast Arctic region. There are concerns this is the beginning of a 21st century “scramble for the Arctic”, but rather than staking territorial claims, non- Arctic countries want to exert economic and political influence in the region.  China already has a research station in Norway’s high Arctic and is building an 8,000-tonne icebreaker.

Canada has a great opportunity to become an influential Arctic power, and to ensure the resource-rich but fragile region doesn’t become a “Wild West” where the views of indigenous and other longstanding residents are ignored, said Tony Penikett, former premier of the Yukon, one of Canada’s three Arctic territories.  In 2013, Canada will chair the Arctic Council, a highly influential governmental forum originally created to promote international cooperation in the North. The council faces major issues such as expanded membership, increases in trans-Arctic shipping, resource extraction, and environmental protection of the fragile region already hard hit by climate change.  The council is unique amongst international bodies by including six Arctic indigenous groups as permanent members along with eight countries with Arctic territories: Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland). However, only these countries have a vote. There are also six non-Arctic nations that sit in as observers today: the Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.  Disputes between Arctic nations are rare and the Council serves an important platform for discussion. Russia and Norway concluded a boundary treaty for the Barents Sea in 2010. Other territorial disputes, such as between Russia, Denmark and Canada over rights to parts of the Lomonosov Ridge, are being sorted out under the Law of the Sea Convention.

“However, the Council is struggling with the issue of addition of other non-Arctic nations,” Penikett told IPS.  The European Union, other European nations, Japan and South Korea have indicated they want observer status as well. “To remain relevant does the Council give other nations a larger role or remain an exclusive club?” he asked.

Russia and Canada have strongly opposed expansion. Indigenous groups also oppose it, fearing their influence and voice will be diluted, said Penikett, who will be a keynote speaker at the second annual Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Conference this week at the University of Toronto.  The conference theme is “The Arctic Council: Its place in the future of Arctic governance,” and will include policymakers and academics from all circumpolar states.

“Expansion would give the council a much stronger voice,” said Michael Byers, a professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.  Having a larger, more influential membership would bring more public attention to the region, Byers said in an interview. “Excluding other countries who have legitimate interests [?] will simply create friction,” he said.

Last summer, the Russian-owned Vladimir Tikhonov became the first supertanker ever to navigate the 5,500-kilometre Northeast Passage. Also known as the Russian Northern Sea Route, it cuts thousands of kilometres off the distance between Europe and Asia compared to going through the Panama Canal.  Arctic waters will remain extremely dangerous for a long time. Last month a huge floating Russian oil drilling rig sank in a storm, killing 53 workers. Fortunately, it was being towed back to port at the time and no oil was spilled.

The Arctic Council has pioneered a new circumpolar search and rescue cooperation agreement, but it has not dealt with oil spill response or even considered environmental safety standards for oil and gas drilling, said Sara French, Arctic security researcher at the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, a NGO with focus on the Arctic and water.  There have been some preliminary discussions about oil spills but nothing about safety standards for Arctic drilling, French told IPS.

“The Inuit Circumpolar Council has brought up the issue and they do want a common set of rules to protect the environment,” she said.  As chair, Canada could demonstrate its leadership on Arctic issues, including strengthening the voice of the indigenous people, she said.  Canada could be a leader – but it won’t under the Harper government, predicted Byers.  “Climate change and its consequences are the overriding issue in the Arctic,” he said.

Under the Harper government, Canada has been a “rogue state” at international climate meetings and its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to reduce carbon emissions causing climate change. Instead of reducing those emissions by six percent as agreed in the treaty, Canada’s emissions soared 24 percent. Last month, as reported by IPS, the Harper government pulled out of Kyoto.  “Canada is seen to have a retrograde position on climate change. That will make it challenging to be an effective leader on the Council,” said Byers.

Being chair of the Council could be good opportunity for Canada, he acknowledged. “However, I am worried that the current government will squander this opportunity.”

By Stephen Leahy, Melting Ice Makes Arctic Access a Hot Commodity, IPS, Jan. 16, 2012

Climate Change: Walking on Broken Ice

If they could only build a robust climate model…the following from Canada.com

Forecasts of an ice-free Arctic summer by 2100 may be underestimating climate change trends in the region, new research suggests.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007, forecast an ice-free Arctic summer by 2100. But that might happen much earlier, according to research by Pierre Rampal from MIT’s department of Earth, Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences, says an MIT news release on research to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Oceans.

IPCC models focused on changes in temperature, which are one way to lose or gain ice. But Rampal said wind and ocean currents also batter the ice, causing it to break up. And ice that’s in small pieces behaves differently than ice in one large mass.  Wind and currents also play a significant role in winter, when they can cause “drastic effects” on the ice’s shape and movement, he said.

As today’s Arctic Ocean winter ice cover is thinner, it breaks up more easily under the influence of winds and currents. So, eventually it looks like an “ensemble of floes” instead of one large mass, Rampal said.  In summer, natural melting due to warmer temperatures opens the door to even more breakup, he said.  However, large cracks in the winter’s ice cover can help create new ice, since the extremely cold air in contact with the liquid ocean promotes refreezing.  This means “it’s hard to predict the future of Arctic sea ice,” said Rampal.  Rampal is working on a project with researchers at MIT and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to combine models and observations which will produce a more accurate picture of what’s happening.

Arctic Ocean to lose ice faster than predicted: MIT, Canada.com, Aug. 10, 2011

Oil Drilling in the Arctic: Environmental Commandoes weapon freedom of information

Armed Danish commandoes are thought to have been landed on a giant oil rig by helicopter to prevent environmentalists interfering with a British oil company’s controversial exploration of deep Arctic waters. In a stand-off in the Davis Strait, west of Greenland, the Danish navy has been shadowing the Greenpeace ship Esperanza as it tracked the 53,000 tonne Leiv Eiriksson in iceberg-strewn sea to the site where it plans to search for oil at depths of up to 5,000ft.  The confrontation between Denmark and Greenpeace, which argues that it is dangerous to drill for oil in pristine Arctic waters, follows the decision by Scottish oil company Cairn Energy to explore for oil and gas in Baffin Sea this summer.

Fears that an Arctic spill would be difficult if not impossible to clean up were confirmed in an email exchange between the British Foreign Office and the energy secretary, Chris Huhne, that was obtained by Greenpeace under freedom of information legislation. Officials briefed Huhne, saying: “It is difficult to get assistance in case of pollution problems in such areas, and near impossible to make good damage caused.”…Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser at Greenpeace UK said: “These documents make it clear that companies like Cairn are playing Russian roulette with one of the most important environments in the world. When even the UK government recognises the huge risks associated with the oil drilling in the Arctic then it must be time to halt the rush for oil in one of the most delicate ecosystems in the in the world.”

Cairn says it has prepared comprehensive oil spill plans, and has put up a bond of $2bn. Last month it said in a statement: “Wherever it is active, Cairn seeks to operate in a safe and prudent manner. The Greenlandic Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum has established some of the most stringent operating regulations anywhere globally, which mirror those applied in the Norwegian North Sea. Cairn respects the rights of individuals and organisations to express their views in a safe manner.”

Seven major oil companies have licenses to explore off Greenland but Cairn will be the only one to begin operations in the short July-October “summer window” when the ice has retreated. Cairn holds 11 licences covering over 80,000 square kilometres and plans to drill four exploratory wells to depths of around 5,000ft, the deepest ever attempted in the Arctic.

Fears that Greenpeace plan to prevent work have been heightened since the group occupied one of Cairn’s drilling ships working in shallower Arctic waters last years, and 11 climbers also boarded the Leiv Eiriksson, when it left Turkey for Greenland last month. Greenpeace also tried to stop the rig as it passed Greece and Italy last month but was prevented by storms.

Excerpt, John Vidal, Danish commandoes wade into Greenpeace Arctic oil protest,Guardian, May 24, 2011

Searching in the Dark, not anymore: Arctic Resources for indigenous Peoples

Royal Dutch Shell had spent $84m on offshore [oil] leases and had satisfied regulators. But it failed to win over the Inupiat, an Inuit group. They worried that icebreakers and drill ships would hurt the bowhead whales on which they depend. Their leaders and environmental groups sued American regulators for not following a 1970 law on environmental impacts. This allowed them to wrest a number of concessions from Shell, including a commitment to stop all offshore operations during the bowhead migration and hunt, should drilling ever proceed.

Much has been made about conflicts between Arctic states because of a retreating polar ice cap, which will make many natural resources accessible for the first time. But so far, the disputes have been of a different kind. Shell’s experience in Alaska is being repeated around the North Pole. And such clashes are bound to become even more common. Native groups claim much of the Arctic coast as their traditional territory (see map)—and are prepared to fight for their rights. In late February representatives of the Inuit met in Ottawa to discuss a common position on resource development in the High North.

In fact, countries surrounding the Arctic do not have much to argue over. The resources on land lie within clearly delineated borders and those under the sea—which include an estimated 83 billion barrels of oil, more than Russia’s proven reserves today—are largely in shallow waters within the uncontested jurisdiction of coastal states. “There is no race for Arctic resources, and no appetite for conflict,” says Michael Byers, author of the book “Who Owns the Arctic?” Instead of getting into a fight, he points out, Norway and Russia last year ended a decades-long dispute.

In contrast, potential for conflict with native groups is in rich supply. In particular the Inuit live in areas where natural resources are plentiful. And although they are only a small minority—an estimated 160,000 of them are spread across the Arctic—they have achieved a degree of power. Greenland, a territory of Denmark with a predominantly Inuit population, assumed self-rule in 2009, giving it control of its resources. Nunavut, a vast northern territory in Canada, was created a decade earlier by a settlement with the Inuit.

What is more, the Inuit are determined not to be bowled over. They have amplified their power by banding together in the Inuit Circumpolar Council, (ICC), a body created in 1977. They have used their membership of various United Nations bodies to compare notes with indigenous groups from around the world. They have teamed up with other Arctic dwellers such as the Sami of Scandinavia and the Dene of north-western Canada. And they have sought expert legal advice for their common position, which is due in May.

The Inuit are not against development, but want to ensure that it happens on their terms. This partly means sparing the environment—but it also means receiving their share. “For centuries the Arctic lands and waters have been exploited by everybody—except the Inuit. Now it’s our turn,” Kuupik Kleist, Greenland’s prime minister, said at a meeting in Ottawa. The territory is counting on offshore oil and gas to speed its way to independence. It allowed exploration to proceed last year when others were hanging back after the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico…

Excerpt, Arctic resources: Now it’s their turn, Economist, Mar. 5, 2011, at 68