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UK House of Commons committee calls for halt in Arctic drilling

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An environmental committee in the United Kingdom's House of Commons has called for a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic until stronger safeguards are in place.

"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," said Joan Walley, chair of the House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee, in a statement released Sept. 20.

"The infrastructure to mount a big cleanup operation is simply not in place and conventional oil spill response techniques have not been proven to work in such severe conditions," Walley said.

Rick Steiner, a marine conservation professor in Anchorage, who testified before the committee, called the committee's conclusions "the strongest call for protection an sustainability of the Arctic from any government body in history. It is very significant," Steiner said in an interview in Anchorage shortly after the committee report came out.

"These guys are saying 'no more oil drilling until we get it right."

The Environmental Audit Committee report now goes to the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron, which can make recommendations to the oil industry on how to do things in the Arctic, Steiner said.

"The UK government has a lot of political capital with the United Nations and with industry and with the eight Arctic coastal nations," he said. "They can say 'if you are going to do drilling, shipping and fishing in the Arctic, the global community wants you to do it right and you are not close to the standards we expect."

Royal Dutch Shell plc, the Dutch-British multinational oil and gas company intend on resuming next year its efforts for offshore drilling in Alaska's Arctic, has headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, with its registered office in London.

British Petroleum, one of three major oil companies operating on Alaska's North Slope, also is headquartered in London.

Shell officials said Sept. 17 they would halt efforts to drill offshore for oil this year. The $4.5 billion project was the first offshore drilling attempt in Alaska's Arctic in two decades. Shell did plan, however, to continue with plans to drill "top holes," a relatively shallow drilling effort that would not reach oil-bearing geological formations.

In its report, "Protecting the Arctic," the committee said drilling should be halted until a pan-Arctic oil spill response standard is in place, and a stricter financial liability regime for oil and gas operations is introduced requiring companies to prove that they can meet the cost of cleanup.

The committee report also called for an oil and gas industry group to set up to peer-review companies' spill response plans and operating practices, further independent research and testing on oil spill response techniques in Arctic conditions, including an assessment of their environmental side effects, and establishment of an internationally recognized environmental sanctuary in at least part of the Arctic.

"Drilling is only currently feasible in the Arctic during a short summer window when it is relatively ice free," Walley said. "We heard compelling evidence that if a blow-out occurred just before the dark Arctic winter returned it may not be possible to cap it until the following summer – potentially leaving oil spewing out under the ice for six months or more with devastating consequences for wildlife."

The report also looked at effects of climate change on the Arctic. It warned that a collapse in summer Arctic sea ice, increased methane emissions from thawing permafrost, melting of the Greenland ice sheet and changes to the thermo-haline circulation could all have disastrous consequences for the world, pushing up sea levels and transforming weather patterns.

Temperature rises in the Arctic are already affecting the UK's weather, according to evidence submitted to the inquiry.

"The shocking speed at which the Arctic sea ice is melting should be a wake-up call to the world that we need to phase out fossil fuels fast," Walley said. "Instead we are witnessing a reckless gold rush in this pristine wilderness as big companies and governments make a grab for the world's last untapped oil and gas reserves."

In his invited testimony to the committee, Steiner recommended establishing an Arctic offshore petroleum institute, an industry-to-industry oversight group for all Arctic oil and gas drilling; citizens advisory councils across the Arctic, increased financial liability for drilling and shipping; and enhanced risk reduction standards for drilling.

Steiner also urged the UK government to work with the United Nations to convene an Arctic council under the auspices of the UN, one that includes non-Arctic nations as well.

Steiner said he was delighted that the committee included all his recommendations in their report on protecting the Arctic.

This story was originally published by The Cordova Times and is reprinted here with permission. Contact Margaret Bauman at mbauman(at)thecordovatimes.com.