September 20, 2012

U.K. Lawmakers Call for Arctic Drilling Moratorium

Cleanup infrastructure ‘not in place’ in case of spill

A body of British lawmakers has called for a moratorium on drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic by oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and Cairn Energy, until tougher environmental regulations are in place, saying that there is a lack of cleanup infrastructure in place in case of a spill.

Bloomberg reported Thursday that the multiparty Environmental Audit Committee said that existing oil spill response techniques have not been proved adequate to respond to a spill in Arctic conditions. The committe has proposed to stop drilling operations in the region until more stringent safeguards have been put in place, in an effort to avoid a catastrophe on the scale of BP’s Macondo spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Joan Walley, a member of the opposition Labour Party and chairwoman of the committee, said in a statement, “The infrastructure to mount a big cleanup operation is simply not in place.”

Companies have been eager to capitalize on a record Arctic ice melt to drill in the region, but Reuters reported Monday that a recent drilling operation by Royal Dutch Shell had to be halted last week after the incursion of an ice floe damaged a containment dome designed to cap any potential oil spill.

In its report, the committee pointed out the danger of spilled oil lingering “for decades,” saying, “Only a small fraction of oil would be recovered in the event of a significant oil spill in the Arctic and it might take decades for wildlife to recover.” They referred to evidence provided by Greenpeace and said that oil was still being found in the Arctic 23 years after the oil spill from the 1989 Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

Lawmakers also cited risks to whales posed by the sound of drilling. Whales and other sea creatures can be injured and even killed by loud undersea sounds, as well as becoming disoriented when their own navigational abilities are impaired.

“The retreating ice cap is enabling greater exploitation of the Arctic’s natural resources—fossil fuels, minerals, and fisheries, and opening up new major global shipping routes,” the lawmakers said. “Such development could result in significant environmental damage in a region already feeling the effects of climate change more than the rest of the planet.”

Lawmakers were also skeptical of oil companies’ position on the costs of possible spill cleanups. Peter Velez, a global emergency response manager for Shell, and Cairn Exploration Director Richard Heaton testified before the committee. According to the committee’s report, the former said Shell had no estimate for the cost of a worst-case Arctic oil spill because “we are going to do whatever it takes to clean it up,” and the latter espoused a similar position.

“We are surprised that neither has put a financial estimate on the cost to their business of dealing with a ‘worst case’ oil spill,” the lawmakers wrote. “There does need to be public transparency to provide assurance that cost will not be a bar on dealing with the consequences of any spills.” The committee also cited evidence provided to another Parliamentary committee on the Gulf oil spill as evidence that the companies are not prepared to deal with a subsea well blowout.

Lawmakers called for a moratorium on Arctic drilling until a pan-Arctic oil spill response standard has been mounted, as well as regulations for a “preferably unlimited” financial liability standard for oil and gas operations. They also said that Arctic states should impose “the highest available environmental standards” for drilling, and said that additional research is needed on methods to respond to a spill under Arctic conditions.

Walley said in the report, “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.”

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