Activists question Arctic clean-up plan

2013-02-04 08:30
Royal Dutch Shell has halted its drilling in the Arctic one day after the work began because sea ice is moving toward the company's drill ship. (Dave Martin, AP)

Royal Dutch Shell has halted its drilling in the Arctic one day after the work began because sea ice is moving toward the company's drill ship. (Dave Martin, AP)

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Oslo - Arctic nations' plans to start co-operating over oil spills are vague and fail to define companies' liability for any accidents in an icy region opening up due to global warming, environmentalists said on Monday.

A 21-page document by the eight-nation Arctic Council, seen by Reuters and due to be approved in May, says countries in the region "shall maintain a national system for responding promptly and effectively to oil pollution incidents".

It does not say what that means in terms of staff, ships, clean-up equipment or corporate liability in a remote region that the US Geological Survey estimates has 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered gas.

The countries have drafted the document as companies including Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, Lukoil and Statoil are looking north for oil despite high costs and risks. Shell's Kulluk oil rig ran aground in Alaska on 31 December in near hurricane conditions.

"The document doesn't get to grips with the risks of a spill in a meaningful way," said Ruth Davis of Greenpeace, which passed the document to Reuters. Officials confirmed the text was genuine.

Co-operation

Greenpeace, which wants the Arctic to be off-limits to drilling, said it was "so vaguely written as to have very little practical value in increasing the level of preparedness".

"We should be far beyond this rudimentary document," echoed Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant and former professor at the University of Alaska often critical of the oil industry. He said the Council should put more stress on preventing spills.

The Arctic Council - comprising the US, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark including Greenland - sees co-operation as big progress for the region, where sea ice shrank to a record low in the summer of 2012.

"There will be a lot of improvements compared to today - quite simply by making it much easier for countries in the Arctic to help each other when needed," said Karsten Klepsvik, polar expert at Norway's foreign ministry until end-2012.

The document, for instance, sets up 24-hour emergency contacts in the eight nations, seeks national rules to allow quick transport of clean-up equipment across maritime borders, better monitoring and joint training exercises.

Environment ministers from the Arctic Council will meet in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, on 5 - 6 February to discuss the draft.

The Arctic document makes clear it is non-binding, except for repayment of costs when one country helps another. It says it is "subject to the capabilities of the parties and the availability of relevant resources".

Global warming

Global warming is making the Arctic region more accessible to shipping, mining and oil exploration. Oil spills could be extremely hard to clean up, perhaps trapped in or under ice that can be carried across international boundaries by ocean currents and winds.

In 2011, Arctic Council foreign ministers including outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed a plan for search and rescue - a prelude to harder work on defining rules for oil and gas.

The document says it will apply a general principle that the polluter pays, but does not define corporate liability. Steiner said Arctic-wide unlimited liability would make companies and insurers more cautious.

"Greenland suggested that we should include a system of liability in the agreement. There was no agreement on this," Klepsvik said. "We are a consensus body. We realised that it would take years and years to reach a conclusion" on liability.

And he said big oil companies showed they do pay for damage. BP had paid $23bn in costs and claims by late 2012 after its 2010 blow-out in the Gulf, the worst offshore spill in US history.

Exxon Mobil says it paid more than $4.3bn after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground just south of the Arctic in 1989, spilling more than 250 000 barrels.

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