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Arctic infrastructure not keeping pace with commercial activity

Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

The Russian response to Greenpeace’s protest at the Arctic Prirazlomnoye oil rig made it clear to a lot of people that in spite of environmental concerns, the commercialization of the region is proceeding full speed ahead and enjoying top political priority.

The controversial rig went into production at the end of the last year. Shipping has also increased dramatically in Arctic waters in the last few years, with international freight companies using the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast to transport gas and other commodities. This reduces the distance between Shanghai and Hamburg by around 6,400 kilometers, compared with the usual route via the Suez Canal. Tourism is also on the up, with an increasing number of cruise ships making their way through Arctic waters during the summer months. What happens if one of these ships sinks? When the Costa Concordia cruise ship hit rocks off the Italian island of Giglio in January 2012 and tipped onto its side, the risks of this kind of tourism became graphically clear. The thought of something like that happening with an iceberg in the remote regions around Spitsbergen or Greenland doesn’t bear thinking about. But that, of course, is exactly what we have to do with a view to minimizing risks for people and the environment.

The Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies has examined existing infrastructure in the six Arctic coastal states (United States, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Russia). I attended a workshop as a side-event to the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso in January, where the initial results were presented. They should really set the alarm bells ringing.

Kathrin Keil from the IASS Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, looked at developments in the oil and gas sector. She warned that the unpredictability and variability of weather and ice conditions would severely limit the options for responding to an oil accident in the region. The ice cover in May can be between 30 and 90 percent, she explained.

The ice-free period can be as short as one month or as long as nine. To date, there is no adequate technology available to successfully deal with the results of an oil spill in Arctic waters. The Institute also says the "Oil Spill Response Plan" provided by Gazprom for the Prirazlomnoye rig lacks detail. The rig is located close to several nature reserves and Kail warns that these areas would be extremely vulnerable if oil or fuel were to spill. She argues for the tightest possible safety regulations, given that this is the first offshore oil platform to go into operation in the Arctic.

Disaster in the Arctic: a possibility

Anton Vasiliev, Russia’s ambassador to the Arctic Council, assumes his country will have proper infrastructure in place along the Northern Sea Route within the next few years. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson also told me in an interview in Tromso he was confident that security and response infrastructure would be improved.

“In the end we are always worried about the ocean around Iceland, so the environment and security matter. The possibility of a disaster in the Arctic is why we are paying so much attention to the region,” he told me. “The attention to the economic potential of the Arctic is growing fast. But I don’t think it is moving so fast that we cannot manage it.”

But environmental groups are increasingly concerned about commercial activity in the Arctic. I noticed a distinct lack of ngo participation at the Arctic Frontiers event this year. The price of conference attendance seems to be one factor that reduces the number of non-governmental organization people attending. On the official program, it seems only one NGO is officially invited to speak each year. This year, it was World Wildlife Fund's turn, and Nina Jensen, WWF's chief executive, was on one of the panels. I interviewed her in Tromso and she told me: “With the increasing ship traffic, there is a higher risk of accidents and pollution that will impact both humans and wildlife to a very serious extent. We do not know enough about the marine environment to be able to avoid serious impacts. We do not have adequate regulations in place, and there is no sufficient oil spill preparedness.” While she welcomes the Polar Code, she stresses it is only a first step, and fails to tackle issues such as black carbon pollution, invasive species and the use of heavy fuel oil.

She sees a huge discrepancy between the political rhetoric, with politicians all paying lip service to the need for a better infrastructure to protect the fragile Arctic environment, but taking little action to make this happen in time.

We also talked about the huge paradox that is Arctic oil drilling. Climate change is making it possible -- and burning oil, in turn, is creating the emissions which cause climate change. The world needs to get away from fossil fuel, says Jensen. The future of the Arctic has to be renewable.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.