This week, in a quiet and unassuming European conference centre, a small committee that is part of an international Convention very few people have ever heard about, is meeting to discuss an issue of global significance.
Cynics might point out that this isn’t particularly surprising or newsworthy, but when the OSPAR’s Offshore Industry Committee (OIC) sits down in the German city of Bonn today, they will have to grapple with the thorny issue of whether or not to regulate oil exploration in Arctic waters. And we think that is big news.
The treacherous, icy waters of the far north are a world away from the genteel streets of a city more famous for being the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven, but the meeting taking place there could have far-reaching implications for the future of oil drilling in those northern waters.
OSPAR is a Convention set up in the 1970s to protect the marine environment of the North-eastern Atlantic. Signed by 15 nations and the European Union, its legally-binding agreements have helped clean up and protect a vast area of open water that stretches thousands of miles from the Azores to the northern tip of Greenland.
As around 40% of the total area that OSPAR covers is in the Arctic, Greenpeace believes the Commission has an exceptional opportunity to safeguard this unique and little-understood region from the looming threat of oil drilling. Afterall, one of the Convention’s key responsibilities is “to take all possible steps to prevent and eliminate pollution and to take the necessary measures to protect the maritime area against the adverse effects of human activities.”
The risks of drilling for oil in ice-prone waters are well-known. There remains no proven way of clean up oil spilled in ice. Traditional clean-up methods like booms and skimmers simply don’t work in icy seas. The efficacy of chemical dispersants is diminished, whilst we can only guess at their long-term impacts on the arctic ecosystem. The in-situ burning of trapped oil is much harder and cleaning up the soot and oil residue left on the ice isn’t at all straightforward. And on top of this, you have the intractable problems of remoteness, months of darkness, raging storms and bitter, freezing temperatures.
Faced by such insurmountable problems, in 2014 the OIC discussed whether OSPAR’s Arctic region needed extra protection. This made perfect sense because when it comes to the potential consequences of offshore oil drilling, OSPAR aims to “prevent and eliminate pollution” and protect our waters from “the adverse effects” of these operations to help “conserve the marine ecosystem.” At the same time the OIC’s remit is crystal clear, stating that it must “keep under review the need for actions to prevent potential adverse effects from offshore activities.”
This sounds like a perfect mandate to regulate Arctic drillers. However, despite the all-too-obvious risks that oil drilling poses to the icy northern environment, the OIC decided in 2014 that there was “no need” for additional rules to cover oil and gas operations in Arctic waters.
Thankfully the OSPAR Commission didn’t support this conclusion, deciding instead to keep an eye on whether new guidelines might be needed in future.
Greenpeace has worked constructively with the so-called contracting parties to the OSPAR Convention for many years to give voice to civil society’s concerns about the North Atlantic and Arctic environments. We firmly believe that the OIC has a real chance to live up to the deserved reputation of OSPAR by:
- Recognizing the specific sensitivity of OSPAR’s Arctic waters and the need for specific actions to protect them.
- Establishing areas within the OSPAR portion of the Arctic where oil operations should never occur because of the risks to fragile environments.
It is hard not to overstate the threat drilling rigs pose here. The risks of environmental damage from oil pollution are potentially more severe in the Arctic than in any other OSPAR area.
Which is why Greenpeace believes OSPAR should act to protect the Arctic. Now.
Jon Burgwald is an Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace Denmark.