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CLIMATE CHANGE: Arctic Oil and Gas Rush Alarms Scientists

Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Sep 8 2008 (IPS) - As greenhouse gas pollution destroys Arctic ecosystems, countries like Canada are spending millions not to halt the destruction but to exploit it.

Late last August, Canada announced a 93.7-million-dollar prospecting programme to map the energy and mineral resources of the region. There are “countless other precious resources buried under the sea ice and tundra,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said during the announcement. The government’s mapping effort is expected to trigger 469 million dollars in private sector resource exploration and development.

“It is estimated that a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas lies under the Arctic,” Harper said.

This scramble to exploit some of the most environmentally delicate regions of Earth has alarmed international experts who are meeting this week in Iceland to make recommendations to the United Nations and world governments on how to protect the polar regions.

“Many experts believe this new rush to the polar regions is not manageable within existing international law,” says A.H. Zakri, director of the United Nations University’s Yokohama-based Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS), co-organisers of the conference with Iceland’s University of Akureyri.

“Pressure on Earth’s unique and highly vulnerable polar areas is mounting quickly and an internationally-agreed set of rules built on new realities appears needed to many observers,” Zakri said in a statement.

In Iceland, leading scholars will detail fast-emerging issues in international law and policy in the polar regions caused by such developments as the opening up of the Northwest Passage. They will identify priorities for law-making and research and offer their best advice to governments about what they should be doing now and in the future, said conference chair David Leary of UNU-IAS.

“Climate change is the number one issue for the polar regions. Iceland experienced its hottest day in history this summer,” Leary told IPS from Akureyri in northern Iceland. “I expect some strong recommendations on climate change to come from this meeting.”

As climate change opens the Arctic Ocean to shipping, fishing, and other resource exploitation, pollution will pose another major threat to the region, he said.

“Arctic sea routes are among the world’s most hazardous due to lack of natural light, extreme cold, moving ice floes, high wind and low visibility,” said Tatiana Saksina of the World Wildlife Fund’s International Arctic Programme.

The Arctic marine environment is particularly susceptible to the effects of pollution and cleaning up oil spills would be extremely difficult if not impossible. “Yet there are no internationally binding rules to regulate operational pollution from offshore installations,” Saksina said in a statement. “Strict standards for the transportation of Arctic oil are also urgently needed.”

Saksina also noted that overfishing, often illegal and unreported, is already occurring in the Okhotsk and Bering Seas.

Ships also bring foreign species in their ballast waters. These “invaders” can push native species into extinction and fundamentally alter aquatic ecosystems, and have done so in many parts of the world. Arctic waters are particularly vulnerable and therefore very strict standards for ballast water exchange will be needed, said Leary.

Internationally-binding standards for construction, design, equipment and manning of ships are needed since many tourist ships plying the Arctic and Antarctic are not ice ships, he says. Tourism is driving up the number of ships visiting both poles – the once-remote Antarctic region now sees more than 40,000 tourists every year.

“Accidents are going to happen. How will an oil spill be cleaned up? Who will rescue crew and passengers?” asked Leary.

Last November, a tourist ship carrying more than 150 people capsized off the tip of Antarctica after hitting some ice. Fortunately, other ships were close by and everyone was rescued. There was no oil spill. However, not all accidents will be so fortunate, he said.

“There is an urgent need for a comprehensive international environmental regime specially tailored for the unique arctic conditions,” noted the WWF’s Saksina.

The urgency stems from the reality that the ice in the Arctic is melting quickly, leaving the region without a solid-ice cover in summer starting just five years from now, according to some estimates. Without international environmental rules, unplanned and unregulated development is likely to damage the very resources most necessary for a sustainable future in the Arctic, she said.

“There is no time to waste and no reason to wait,” Saksina concluded.

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