Protecting the Arctic

Written evidence submitted by Platform


· The Arctic region represents exceptionally challenging conditions for the oil industry. The limits of currently available oil spill response technology mean that pursuing development of oil fields in areas affected by sea ice is currently incompatible with environmental protection.

· The recent blind support by the UK government of a proposed Arctic deal between BP and the Russian company Rosneft represents a deeply problematic evasion of public and parliamentary oversight.

· Resource extraction must be governed by the principle of free, prior, informed consent of Indigenous groups, as set out in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The general representation of Indigenous groups on the Arctic Council does not guarantee the observance of this right by companies and governments in the case of specific projects.


1. Platform is a London-based research organization that has monitored the impacts of the British oil industry for over fifteen years, exploring the social, economic and environmental shifts that result from oil and gas extraction and transportation. Our work is regularly cited by governments, academia, media, and corporations. We are consulted for expertise by human rights defenders, parliamentarians and journalists, and have deep knowledge on Nigeria, Iraq, the Former Soviet Union and North Africa.


2. The Arctic is a true ‘frontier’ for the oil industry, with exceptionally challenging conditions. The limits of currently available oil spill response technology mean that pursuing development of oil fields in areas affected by sea ice is currently incompatible with environmental protection.

3. Specifically, the challenges are: a need to protect drilling equipment from floating ice in the warmer months, and then during Winter either to tow it away or allow it to freeze in. In places affected by drifting icebergs, oil drilling platforms need to be able to shut down and move aside in a matter of hours, if an approaching iceberg is too large to be towed away . This means that oil wells in seasonal ice waters take longer to complete. Although climate change is causing the sea ice cover to retreat, according to current models seasonal ice will not disappear entirely from the Arctic Ocean during the 21st Century. Furthermore as the ice retreats, it still leaves rough weather and storms, characteristic of high-latitude conditions.

4. An oil spill in these conditions would be much more persistent than in a warmer climate (low temperatures hamper the processes of evaporation and bacterial degradation), [1] and the interaction between an oil slick and sea ice could have severe and unpredictable effects.

5. The specifics of Arctic marine wildlife (characteristically long lifespan and short reproductive rates, and the dependence on plankton as the basis of the food chain) mean that damage from an oil spill would be particularly harmful to these populations.

6. Of the available spill response technologies, (a) the use of chemical dispersants is all but impossible under ice; (b) sea ice and high winds render using containment booms (temporary floating barriers) difficult, and (c) in-situ burning of oil in low temperatures is much less effective. BOEMRE (the US offshore resource regulator) estimates that mechanical containment and recovery methods are only effective on one to twenty percent of spilled oil in broken ice. [2]

7. Extreme weather and long periods of darkness limit the time periods when emergency response and rescue can be carried out. Industry consultancy Nuka Research and Planning Group has come up with a way to measure this problem using the concept of a ‘response gap’, meaning conditions where drilling or transport operations can be carried out, but emergency response cannot. For instance, research commissioned by the WWF showed that in Prince William Sound (the site of the Exxon Valdez spill 18 years ago), a response gap exists 38% of the time: that is, no emergency response work could be carried out for 38% of the year (and during 65% of the winter months). Prince William Sound is sub-Arctic and much more accessible than the remote areas of the Chukchi, Beaufort, and Kara Seas, where drilling concessions have been granted by Russia and the US. A study by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute found that containment booms can only be used in the Barents Sea roughly every other day. [3]

8. With sparsely populated shorelines and lack of established monitoring, it could be a long time before a spill is even noticed by environmental regulators. In Spring 2003 the staff of the Nenetsky National Park in Russia found traces of an oil spill around the island Dolgy after it had already caused the deaths of hundreds of birds. There has been no official record of the spill; according to environmental group Bellona it could have been caused by an accident on a test drilling site by a subsidiary of Russian oil and gas company Gazprom. To date, no company has taken responsibility. [4]

9. Industry experts recognise that regulation, as well as financial and intellectual investment in safety technology, has failed to keep up with the development of offshore drilling. Retired Admiral Thad Allen, the commander of US federal response to both the Deepwater Horizon spill and Hurricane Katrina, noted in an interview in August 2010: "Oil spill response is all predicated on the lessons of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. The legislation that came out of that disaster focused on tanker safety and phasing out single-hull oil tankers, on making sure the party responsible for the disaster meets its liability requirements, and on cleanup as directed by the Oil Pollution Act. […] In the 10 years after that accident […] oil drilling was moving offshore and going deeper underwater. So the technology changed, and the overall response structure didn't keep pace with those changes and the emerging threat." [5]

10. In some cases this lack of financial and intellectual investment is beginning to be addressed, such as with the $2bn bonds as upfront payment for emergency response that Greenland now requires from any company wishing to drill in its waters. [6] However, this still is a unique measure among the Arctic states and also needs to be complemented by safety regulation.

11. Oddgeir Danielsen, oil and gas expert at the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, comments that even now, in the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway, drilling plans are well ahead of emergency response capability, and there is "a need to show decision makers that time and money need to be spent on safety". He said, "I hope that a major accident is not what is needed before relevant action is taken." [7]

12. Despite assurances from oil companies, the capability to adequately respond to oil spill in Arctic conditions does not currently exist.

13. If the UK is serious about its commitment to environmental protection, it should prevent its companies from taking on oil drilling in the Arctic while there is no proven capability to adequately respond to oil spills in the region.


14. Apart from the above mentioned threats to environment, oil extraction poses significant challenges to societies of the Arctic region through its potential to reshape the region’s landscape and economy. The estimated indigenous population of the Arctic region is over a million, a third of the total population, living in diverse conditions. The potential impacts of resource extraction are debated within and between these indigenous communities, a fact often ignored by the more powerful players in Arctic resource politics.

15. Above all, industrial development must be governed by the principle of free, prior, informed consent of Indigenous groups, as set out in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This principle implies (a) information about and consultation on any proposed initiative and its likely impacts, (b) meaningful participation of indigenous peoples; and (c) representative institutions. [8]

16. The representation of Indigenous groups as permanent observers in the Arctic Council is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to securing these legal rights in relation to resource development. It has not, and cannot secure corporate and government compliance with the principles of free, prior, informed consent with regards to each community and each extraction project.

17. Russia has exhibited numerous violations of these rights. On the Kola Peninsula attempts to institute an elected Saami Parliament are being at best ignored and at worst thwarted by the local administration. Meanwhile a piece of land formerly used by a reindeer collective was reclassified by the local administration, with the effect of making it available for pipeline construction for gas extracting consortium Shtokman Development AG without consultation with the Saami. Lukoil (the country’s second largest oil company) is accused of denying multiple oil pipeline leaks occurring around River Pechora, and attempting to ‘hide’ them from the regulators and the indigenous population. [9]

18. While the Indigenous Peoples of other Arctic states have a better position in advocating for their rights, many issues remain. There needs to be clarity over the short and long-term effects of oil extraction projects on regional economies: how many jobs are provided and for how long, as well as the impacts on other activities. The impacts of oil drilling and extraction on the prospects of fishing and whaling are not fully understood and potentially destructive. Seismic testing, used to assess potential oil prospects, produces intensive high-pitch sounds, which is very disruptive to whales and other wildlife. There has been international alarm over their use off Sakhalin (Russia) where grey whales feed in the summer, [10] and residents of Barrow, Alaska, fear that whales may start avoiding their waters if exploration goes ahead next year. [11]

19. UK companies beginning operations in the Arctic should be made to take these concerns seriously, and should be held legally responsible if they fail to respect Indigenous People’s rights.


20. According to analysis by market research firm Bernstein Research, [12] the significant costs associated with the technological challenges of extracting hydrocarbons in the Arctic region mean that "Fiscal takes will be crucial to make any Arctic developments viable". That is, without significant tax breaks companies are unlikely to consider oil and particularly gas fields in the region profitable.

21. An unpublished US Geological Survey (USGS) report obtained by Spiegel newspaper [13] reached a similar conclusion in relation to the East Greenland Rift Basin in particular (estimated reserves of 7.5bn barrels of oil). According to the report, at extraction cost of $100 a barrel (this cost would not include transportation or tax), only 2.5bn barrels of oil could be commercially extracted with a 50% probability of success. Even based on a highly improbable $300 extraction cost per barrel, only 4.1 billion barrels could be raised, with the same 50 percent probability.

22. Therefore in the medium term Arctic oil and gas reserves represent an unaffordable, as well as extremely risky and unreliable, source of energy.


23. In this context, the unquestioning support lent by the UK government to BP in signing a controversial deal with the Russian company Rosneft in 2011 was particularly problematic. Documents revealed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under Freedom of Information legislation show that BP had been in communication with FCO officials about the tie-up with Rosneft for 18 months. [14] Chris Huhne, then Energy Secretary, attended the signing ceremony at 3 days’ notice.

24. FCO and DECC appeared to unconditionally support the deal despite significant public concern around the safety of oil extraction in the Arctic, as well as Russian authorities’ disrespect for the rights of its Indigenous population. The ministries did not seek public or parliamentary discussion over this position.


25. The UK should require its companies to apply British environmental and social responsibility standards in the Arctic. This implies proving capability to drill safely in icy conditions and to clean up oil spills, before industrial drilling is allowed to commence.

26. At the very least, the UK should not lend diplomatic and government support to oil companies in signing deals (in the Arctic and elsewhere) that are associated with severe environmental and human rights concerns.

27. We strongly encourage the Committee to solicit comment (oral or written evidence) from a range of Indigenous Peoples’ groups, both those represented at the Arctic Council and those that are not, to better assess the implications of oil and gas extraction in Arctic communities and support their right to free, prior, and informed consent.

[1] For more information on specific effects of oil spills see 1) Pew Trust, “Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences”. 2) WWF “Drilling for Oil in the Arctic: Too Soon, Too Risky”,

[2] U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Minerals Management Service, Arctic Oil Spill Response Research and Development Program, A Decade of Achievement at 14 (2009),

[3] Barents Observer, “Oil spill cleanup possible only every other day in Barents Sea”, 31 March 2006

[4] “Gotova li Rossiya k dobyche nefti na shelfe?” (“Is Russia ready for oil extraction on the continentalshelf?”), Bellona

[5] “Deepwater Horizon’s Enduring Lessons”, National Journal

[6] The Guardian, “Greenland wants $2bn bond from oil firms keen to drill in its Arctic waters” 12 November 2010

[7] Personal communication.

[8] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “International Workshop on Methodologies Regarding Free Prior and Informed Consent And Indigenous Peoples”

[9] Kola Sami activist, Save Pechora action group - personal communication.

[10] BBC News, “Russia’s oil exploration threatens gray whales”, 24 June 2010

[11] BBC News, “Native Alaskans say oil drilling threatens way of life”, 20 July 2010

[12] Oswald Clint, Bernstein Research. ‘Arctic Drilling: does any of it make sense?’ Presentation for Finding Petroleum conference, 2011

[13] Spiegel Online, ‘The Exorbitant Dream of Arctic Oil’, 26 January 2011,1518,741820,00.html

[14] The Telegraph, ‘Foreign Office 'backed BP in Rosneft talks'’, 27 March 2011

[14] 13 February 2012


Prepared 24th February 2012