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MPs’ call to halt Arctic drilling amid safety concerns

Shell has reputedly invested almost $5bn in its Arctic projects. It suffered a major setback at the weekend after a huge containment dome designed to corral any Arctic spill broke down under trials. Shell abandoned drilling for the winter.

By Roger Harrabin Environment analyst: 20 September 2012 Last updated at 02:21

A committee of MPs has called for a halt on drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic until safety is improved.

They say current techniques for dealing with any spill do not inspire confidence.

The Environmental Audit Committee fears that a spill could have caused unprecedented environmental damage.

The MPs want to see a standard pan-Arctic spill response standard, unlimited liability for firms and an Arctic environmental sanctuary.

But the UK has no power over the Arctic – and Arctic states are under pressure to cash in on oil and gas.

The British government has observer status on the Arctic Council – the grouping of Arctic states that discusses Arctic issues.

The committee wants the UK to try to use its influence to improve environmental safeguards but in evidence the MPs heard, that governance of the region was fragmented and weak.

The BBC understands that relations between Russia and the other Arctic nations were particularly problematic.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office, which deals with Arctic issues for the UK, told BBC News: “The Arctic is changing rapidly, primarily as a result of climate change. It is not the Arctic of 20 years ago and it will likely be different again 20 years from now.

“The Government therefore welcomes the useful and timely Environmental Audit Committee’s report into protecting the Arctic that explored many of the challenges and opportunities facing the Arctic.

“The Government is carefully considering the findings and recommendations made by the Committee and will formally respond in due course.”

Sweden, currently in the chair of the Arctic Council, declined to comment on the moratorium proposal.

Put on ice

Arctic drilling has been happening since the 1920s, but it has become much more contentious as BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominated the headlines whilst firms were scrambling to expand production in the far North.

BP’s Arctic ambitions are temporarily on hold, but Shell has reputedly invested almost $5bn in its Arctic projects. It suffered a major setback at the weekend after a huge containment dome designed to corral any Arctic spill broke down under trials. Shell abandoned drilling for the winter.

The cost of extra safety investment may slow Arctic drilling for a while, especially as we are in a glut of cheap shale gas. But the committee heard that Lloyd’s estimated that investment in the Arctic could potentially reach $100bn or more over the next 10 years.

The committee heard from several witnesses that safety standards were inadequate. Prof Peter Wadhams, an Arctic ice expert from Cambridge University told them: “If they can’t cap the blowout off, or drill a relief well before the winter, the blowout will operate right through the winter months, with oil and gas coming up under the ice.

“The oil coats the bottom of the ice, and if the ice is moving, which is often at about 10km a day, it acts like a great sheet of moving blotting paper, absorbing the oil coming up under it, and carrying it away downstream.

“You will have a trail of oiled ice floes 1,000 kilometres or more in length covering a whole swathe of the Arctic. The oil disappears into the interior of each floe, because new ice grows underneath it, so you have an ‘oil sandwich’ which lasts all through the winter.

“Then the oil rises to the top surface of the ice in the spring and summer and retains its toxicity. By now it is spread thinly around such a huge area that it is very, very difficult to … get rid of.”

BP wouldn’t give evidence to the MPs but Shell told them the spill response was adequate.

Coming clean

In fact, the company said that, in some circumstances, Arctic conditions would make it easier to recover oil. It said independent tests in Arctic conditions have shown that ice can slow oil weathering, dampen waves, prevent oil from spreading over large distances, and allow more time to respond.

Shell told MPs that in Alaska available mechanical recovery assets had “a combined capacity that exceeds the worst-case discharge potential of the well we are drilling”.

A Scottish-based firm, Cairn Energy, suggested that “sections of oiled ice can be cut out and allow the ice to thaw in a heated warehouse and then separating the oil from its water”.

The chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said: “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.”

“The infrastructure to mount a big clean-up operation is simply not in place and conventional oil spill response techniques have not been proven to work in such severe conditions.”

Vicky Wyatt, head of Greenpeace’s Arctic campaign, said: “Oil giants like Shell shouldn’t be drilling in the fragile and pristine Arctic. By calling for a halt, these MPs have hit the nail on the head. An oil spill in this unique place would be catastrophic for the Arctic.”

The committee also highlighted the irony that drilling was eased because the Arctic was already warming much faster than anywhere else on the planet.

Chris Barton, head of international energy security at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), told MPs that “we will still need more and new oil and gas production, and the likelihood is that some of that will come from the Arctic”, even “if we hit our 2C (climate change) target”.

He acknowledged that “ultimately we are going to need to reduce – if not very largely eliminate -our use of oil but it is not going to happen overnight”.

The MPs said: “There appears to be a lack of strategic thinking and policy coherence within Government on this issue, illustrated by its failure to demonstrate how future oil and gas extraction from the Arctic can be reconciled to commitments to limit temperature rises to 2°C. The Government should seek to resolve this matter.”

The MPs heard from the Met Office that the decline in sea ice is part of a long-term trend, although this year’s very severe melt was likely to have been accelerated by local weather conditions.

Follow Roger Harrabin on Twitter: @rogerharrabin

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