By Julia Heath
In September 2011, Vladimir Putin announced a program to begin offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Russian Arctic. Putin is also interested in creating new sea terminals, which he said would rival the Suez and Panama Canals. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas lay beneath the Arctic Seas. The United States, Canada, Norway, Greenland, and Russia, which make up the Arctic 5, are each interested in tapping these Arctic energy reserves.
Russia, the largest oil producer of the five, gets nearly half of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from oil exports, a level comparable to Saudi Arabia. As a result, Putin perceives fossil fuels as vital to Russia’s economy and political stability. However, the extreme Arctic climate, characterized by unpredictable weather patterns, heaving sea ice, sub-zero temperatures, dense fog, and darkness half the year, requires specialized equipment. Russia holds a technological advantage over the other Arctic countries because it has already invested in 20 icebreakers, while Canada has 12 and the United States only one. Russia signed a deal with British Petroleum last month to explore the Arctic. Therefore, Russia is currently leading the extractive assault.
”The Gulf of Mexico is perhaps the most well-equipped region on the planet to deal with a massive oil spill,” says Lisa Speer of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), “and we had a really hard time dealing with that.” British Petroleum (BP) is one of the companies interested in drilling in Russia, along with Exxon Mobile and the Norwegian-owned Statoil. In 2010, BP proved woefully unprepared to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Unlike the Gulf, the Arctic region lacks basic infrastructure needed for spill response. For example, much of northern Russia, Canada, and Greenland lacks roads or airports, and there are only limited communications facilities. In Alaska, the nearest Coast Guard station is nearly 1,000 miles away. The lack of safety infrastructure combined with the extreme weather conditions is a red flag that BP—or any other oil company—is not prepared for Arctic oil extraction at this time. Arctic drilling is perilous for both employees and the environment.
Impact of Global Warming
Summer polar ice is projected to thaw completely by 2030. Entrepreneurs see this as an asset to be developed for trade and tourism. In 2011, America’s National Snow and Ice Data Center showed that ice covered 1.67 million square miles of the Arctic Ocean, with about half typically melting in the summer. However, in the past five years, the Arctic has lost up to two-thirds of its sea ice every summer. The more ice that melts, the greater the Arctic Ocean warms because the light-colored icecaps reflect warmth from the sun while the dark-colored ocean absorbs it. According to the UN Environment Program, soot from incomplete combustion, crop burning, forest fires, wood stoves, and diesel engines -— “black carbon” — also absorbs heat and is often washed into icecaps through rain or snow. An oil spill would darken sea ice and increase its capacity to absorb heat and hasten melting, as would increased pollution from the CO2-intensive development of Arctic infrastructure such as roads, platforms, tankers, ports, and pipelines. Additionally, as the tundra thaws and shrubbery and other darkly colored plants gradually migrate northward, they will also increase heat absorption in the Arctic. The thawing tundra makes developing roads, airports, bridges, pipelines, and other necessary infrastructure extremely unstable, adversely affecting poorly maintained pipelines as well as new infrastructure.
An unprecedented number of polar bears have drowned because of dwindling summer sea ice. Narwhal, walrus, and both bowhead and beluga whales, in addition to many kinds of seals and birds, will also continue to suffer from both Arctic warming and pollution. As climate change transforms the Arctic, species from warmer waters will move northward and further change the ecosystem. The killer whale, which feeds on narwhal, walrus, seal, and beluga and bowhead whales, has been increasing the duration of its Arctic visits. Other animals from warmer waters are endangering the habitat and food supply of native species. Arctic drilling would exacerbate this already serious problem.
Moreover, drilling produces toxic waste that requires proper disposal. Arctic species that already suffer from global concentrations of pollutants are sensitive to changes in climate and are relatively slow to adapt. Arctic development, increased pollution, and the possibility of toxic waste and oil spills — in addition to a current lack of adequate response mechanisms — put Arctic wildlife and those who depend on it at risk.
Indigenous peoples who have traditionally relied on the provisions of the Arctic include the Inuit in the United States, Canada, Greenland, and Russia, the Sami in Norway, and the Nenets in Russia. The Siberian Nenets have traditionally practiced reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing. Over half of Russia’s oil comes from West Siberia. The Nenets have criticized roadwork and bridge building in the area for blocking rivers that then flood and destroy pastureland and hinder reindeer and fish migration. Reindeer can hurt their hooves on glass or sharp metal left from industrial development, causing fatal infections. The Sami reindeer herders of Norway have corroborated that melting and development result in reduced reindeer populations. Development will continue to increase pressure on the traditional livelihoods of the Nenets and other native peoples as the quest for black gold ravages the Arctic Circle.
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The Russian Record
Russia has had a terrible environmental record and a history of oil spills. The area around Usinsk, just south of the Arctic Circle, is home to what the Huffington Post calls “the world’s worst ecological oil catastrophe,” where leaks in a decommissioned oil well wreaked havoc in 2011.
It wasn’t the first such incident. In 1994, the town suffered the third largest oil spill in history. A pipeline in Usinsk had been leaking for eight months when the dike containing the leakage collapsed, spreading 102,000 tons of oil across the tundra, into the Kolva and Rechora rivers, and eventually into the Barents Sea. The leak, eight times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill, was the result of old, corroded, poorly maintained, and over-pumped pipelines. The company responsible, Komineft, had five major accidents in the area between 1986 and 1994. In 1994, Russia was losing an estimated 20 percent of the oil it extracted, but refused to revamp inefficient and environmentally detrimental Soviet pipelines for fear that the break in production would lessen the Russian hold on former Soviet republics and interfere with loan repayment. More recently, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Institute of the Environment and Genetics of Microorganisms have estimated that Russia continues to spill 5 million tons of oil every year, or as the Huffington Post put it, “one Deepwater Horizon-scale leak about every two months.”
Vladimir Chuprov, head of the Arctic campaign for Greenpeace Russia, said that Greenpeace International is absolutely against all offshore drilling in the Arctic. Even the U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates a one in five chance of a major spill occurring over the life of just one lease block on Alaska’s outer continental shelf (OCS). Greenpeace International wants to accord the Arctic a world park status similar to Antarctica. At the very least, they demand that the international community provide strict standards to eradicate the risk of oil spills and require mandatory guarantees that any spills will be mitigated at a cost no less than what was spent on the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Like Greenpeace International, the NRDC also advocates mandatory international standards on how to develop the Arctic. According to Lisa Speer of the NRDC, the United States doesn’t “have enough information to be able to determine whether or not oil and gas activities can be conducted safely (in the Arctic). And we don’t have the ability to contain and clean up oil in ice, and therefore we think we should wait for drilling in the Arctic until we do have the ability to deal with that.”
At a forum on Arctic drilling in January 2012, Andrew Hartsig of the Ocean Conservancy recommended that the United States wait until it has a better hold on the technological requirements of Arctic drilling. However, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy (BOEM) representative Shoshana Lew replied that the federal five-year leasing plan for blocks on Alaska’s OCS would not be deferred until exploration was complete.
Putin abolished the Russian Environmental Agency in order to more easily access Arctic extraction that would otherwise require environmental assessments. This is particularly disconcerting because the Arctic region, according to the UN Environment Programme, “is characterized by some of the largest continuous intact ecosystems on the planet,” and therefore environmentally detrimental projects in the region should require careful consideration and planning.
The United States has been slow to invest in developing its own Arctic energy reserves for fear of ecological devastation. However, it has not done enough to slow development in nearby Russia. Russian offshore drilling is a crucial issue for Americans because polar currents could make an Arctic oil spill into a transnational event. A Russian Arctic oil spill would rapidly become a cultural, ecological, and economic disaster for the United States as well.
Avoiding a Spill
In 2009, the Arctic Council — which consists of eight Arctic states and six international organizations representing indigenous people in the region — recommended that the Arctic states cooperate and pool resources regarding environmental and search-and-rescue response resources and technology, infrastructure creation for navigation in addition to charts and communications, shipbuilding standards, and guidelines on oil and gas exploration. However, Lisa Speer criticizes the Arctic Council for focusing more on containment and response than on prevention. Speer thinks the Council must identify the most sensitive species and ecosystems to determine areas where drilling will have the least ecological impact.
Russia must focus on pipeline efficiency before investing in the Arctic. Greenpeace’s Chuprov says that offshore oil stocks in Russia are a myth. For example, Russia produced approximately 500 million tons of oil in 2010. By 2020, the Russian OCS is only expected to contribute 10 million tons of oil, only twice the amount that Russia loses each year in degraded pipeline spills. The Gazprom manager even claimed, “investment in the development of new fields and energy efficiency are competing with each other.”
The Russian Federation must focus regulations and state investments in efficiency before it invests more heavily in extremely risky Arctic offshore drilling and the technologies that it requires. The United States should make a greater effort to play a lead role in creating an international framework on Arctic development with a focus on spill prevention as well as spill response, cleanup, and restoration. Furthermore, it should continue to strictly regulate offshore drilling in the Alaskan OCS and increase domestic safety and environmental regulations in response to the Deepwater Horizon event. The prospect of a massive spill in the Arctic demands immediate action.
Julia Heath is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.