Opening Up The Far North
Melting ice caps, the influx of trawlers and tourists, and Shell’s £4bn investment to drill for fossil fuels in the Chukchi Sea all raise fears.
It is home to a quarter of the planet’s oil and natural gas reserves, yet humans have hardly touched these resources in the far north. But in a few days that could change dramatically if Shell receives approval to drill for oil in the Arctic.
The company has invested $4bn to set up exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Straits. Once permission is given by the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, - possibly in a few weeks - exploration will begin using wells in Arctic waters.
And that will bring trouble. Environment campaigners say that drilling could have terrible effects on the waters and wildlife of the Arctic. “It took a vast effort to clean up the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” said John Sauven of Greenpeace. “There are no such resources to stop a spill in the Chukchi. The consequences could be devastating and very long lasting.”
But Shell rejects this claim. It has an oil spill response capability that includes barges, helicopters, booms, and other equipment should anything happen, said an official. Drilling will be safe.
Exploiting the Arctic’s vast oil reserves is just one cause of environmental unease, however. The far north is melting and far faster than predicted. Global temperatures have risen 0.7C since 1951. In Greenland, the average temperature has gone up by 1.5C. Its ice cap is losing an estimated 200bn tonnes a year as a result. And further rises are now deemed inevitable, causing the region’s ice to disappear long before the century’s end.
As a result, global powers are beginning to look to the region for its gas and oil, minerals, fish, sea routes and tourist potential. All were once hidden by ice. Now it is disappearing, raising lucrative prospects for Arctic nations, in particular Russia, the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark, which controls Greenland. Large-scale investment could bring riches to areas of poverty, it is argued. However, development could destroy pristine ecosystems and the ways of life for people like the Inuit of Greenland and the Sami of Scandinavia.
One example is highlighted by Professor Callum Roberts, a York University marine biologist. An ice-free Arctic could be stripped of its rich fisheries in a matter of years, he told the Observer. “There are significant fish resources under the Arctic ice at present. But as that ice disappears, that protection will be removed and we can expect a rush from fishing fleets to exploit them. They have already stripped the North Atlantic of its cod, ling and other fish. Now they have their eyes on the Arctic.”