British scientists are at loggerheads with US colleagues over a controversial plan to work alongside oil companies to hunt for fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic.
The US Geological Survey is lining up a project with BP and Statoil to find oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, under the auspices of a flagship scientific initiative intended to tackle global warming.
But the head of the British Antarctic Survey, which coordinates UK activity at the poles, has said he is "very uncomfortable" with the idea and has questioned its ethical and scientific justification.
Tackling climate change and working out how it will affect the Arctic and Antarctic is a central theme of International Polar Year (IPY) - a high-profile project to start next spring that involves thousands of scientists from 60 countries.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and last September saw the lowest extent of sea ice cover for more than a century. Scientists say the temperature there could rise by a further 4C-7C by 2100, and the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by 2060.
Documents on the IPY website show that BP and Statoil, a Norwegian company, are "significant consortium members" on a USGS proposal to assess "energy resources in the circumarctic area including oil, gas, coalbed methane and methane hydrates". Geologists estimate that a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic, and analysts have predicted a 21st-century goldrush to tap them as the Arctic Ocean's ice cover retreats.
Chris Rapley, the director of the British Antarctic Survey, said: "I would be very uncomfortable with a project that simply was out to log the hydrocarbon reserves of the Arctic as a geological activity. I don't think that fits very comfortably within either the scientific guidelines or the ethical underpinning of the IPY."
Launching the polar year initiative last month, Professor Rapley said the scientists would work on projects "that will tackle the urgent environmental issues" because "rapid climate change is already impacting local peoples ... and it is only a question of time before the wider consequences become apparent".
The Inuit people have filed a lawsuit against the US government claiming that greenhouse gas pollution is damaging their livelihoods. Experts have warned the only realistic way to prevent dangerous climate change is to curb carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The USGS proposal has been approved by scientists organising the IPY, but Prof Rapley plans to question its suitability at a committee meeting this week in Cambridge. "If it was in the context of how are we going to manage the inevitable move towards extracting these resources from the Arctic in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way then I think that would be fair game," he said. "There is an argument that it is much better to work with companies that are considering how to exploit these resources rather than taking a somewhat prissy position. But there are some things that are ethically in, and some that are ethically out."
Suzanne Weedman of the USGS said: "This is very much a part of what we do. Our responsibility is to assess the undiscovered oil and gas using geological information." She said the plan built on a project called the Arctic Energy Assessment, which is part of its World Energy Project - a global attempt to map untapped hydrocarbon fuel reserves. Oil companies including ExxonMobil, Amoco, Conoco, Texaco and PetroCanada are listed as members.
Ms Weedman said oil companies had helped fund the World Energy Project - which had a budget of $2m (£1.1m) last year - but insisted they had no say on how the money was spent and had not been involved in research. No company had contributed funds directly to the Arctic Assessment, though some had donated data as in-kind support. "If you look at the objectives of International Polar Year, one of them is to assess the impact of these changes on people who live in the Arctic. Knowing about the energy resources might be very interesting because there is the potential of development in the Arctic. That's not for us to decide, but it is the reality."
A Statoil spokesman said: "It is not unnatural that our kind of contribution is close to our activity, and that is finding and developing resources." The company was working on a gasfield in the Barents Sea, he said, but it had "no concrete actions" elsewhere in the region.
BP said it was not using the research to prospect in the Arctic and that geological surveys could be misleading: "Very often it's intended to get you an indication, not necessarily of oil in a particular place, but what there might be in adjacent areas. You only find oil and gas if you actually drill."
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