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Brits Decry 'Reckless Rush' to Drill in Arctic Waters
House of Commons Calls for Moratorium Until Stronger Safeguards Are in Place
WASHINGTON - September 20 - A cross-party committee of the British Parliament urges halting offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic until stronger safeguards are secured, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This consensus among British lawmakers that reliable spill prevention, response and recovery capacity does not yet exist in the frigid Arctic seas stands in stark contrast to the unrestrained pressure from their American counterparts to drill now, regardless of consequences.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee released its report “Protecting the Arctic” today. The Committee took testimony from oil companies, government officials, experts and conservationists. The Committee’s unanimous call for a check on the “reckless gold rush in this pristine wilderness,” in the words of Committee Chair Joan Walley, was premised on findings that –
- Conventional oil spill response techniques have not been proven to work in severe Arctic conditions, a conclusion not disputed by Royal Dutch Shell, the leading contender to begin drilling in Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf. Shell testified that “We will not be working in ice so testing the [subsea capping] system in those specific conditions will not be useful or practical”;
- There is no infrastructure to mount a big clean-up operation in the Arctic; and
- Rapid development of the Arctic may accelerate already galloping climate change with potentially severe global consequences.
A key witness was Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member who is an expert in oil spill issues, said that “One of the model worst case scenario releases the U.S. Government ran on the Chukchi Sea was loss of well control in one of the exploratory well heads, spilling about 65,000 barrels a day, eventually coming down to maybe 30,000 barrels a day – there is no way physically or technologically possible to respond effectively to something like that. It’s just beyond the scope of even entertaining.”
Underlining his concerns, Prof. Steiner, working with PEER, forced the U.S. government to release documents showing scant and incomplete testing of the critical capping system which Shell meant to deploy in the Chukchi Sea this summer. Among his recommendations adopted by the Committee were –
- Enhanced risk reduction standards for drilling;
- Dramatically increased financial liability for drilling and shipping;
- Establishing Citizens Advisory Councils among all of the Arctic nations;
- Urging the United Nations to convene an Arctic Council under UN auspices which would include non-Arctic nations, as well as the eight Arctic nations;
- Creating an Arctic Offshore Petroleum Institute to act as an industry-to-industry oversight group;
- Demarking Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas for shipping through Arctic waters; and
- Setting aside an Arctic Sanctuary to insulate sensitive areas from industrial development.
“In the Arctic Ocean, the risk of a catastrophic well blowout is enormous. We know what the environmental consequences would be. We know it would probably cause permanent damage in several of the ecosystems. You could not clean it up. You could not respond to it. You cannot restore the damage,” Prof. Steiner said. “We know the risk is so great that every potential risk reduction measure and mitigation measure needs to be put in the system.”
“It is encouraging to see deliberative, dispassionate and non-partisan fact-finding is still possible in a legislative body,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “We can only hope that our U.S. Congress pays close attention to what their colleagues in the U.K. Parliament are recommending for the Arctic.”