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Obama stops oil in Arctic Wildlife Reserve

snow

Winter weather in Germany (Pic: I.Quaile)

Back in Germany after spending a week and a half on the RV Helmer Hanssen off the coast of Spitsbergen, and then in Norway’s Arctic capital Tromso at Arctic Frontiers, I thought I might be in for a shock on my return to warmer climes and a news agenda focusing on stories non-Arctic. Instead, I found some continuity both in the weather and the media.  A heavy fall of snow here kept the Arctic feeling alive, while a twitter of messages on Sunday carried on the lively debate that was happening at Arctic Frontiers over the pros and cons of oil drilling in the Arctic.

The Washington Post broke the story about President Obama proposing new wilderness protection in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). “Alaska Republicans declare war” was the second part of the headline. Clearly, emotions are running high.

The Obama administration is proposing setting aside more than 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska as wilderness. This stops – at least for the moment – any prospect of oil exploration in an area which has long been the subject of controversy between those who say environment protection should be the number one priority and those who say finding oil is more important.

Polar bear, courtesy of WWF

Habitat under threat for polar bears (Pic: courtesy of WWF)

“Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place – pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it’s very fragile”, the President says in a White House video about the proposals.

It seems this is only the first of a series of decisions to be made by the Interior Department relating to the state’s oil and gas production during the coming week. The Washington Post says the department will also put part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling, and is considering whether to impose additional limits on oil and gas production in parts of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

Only the US Congress can actually create a wilderness area, but once the federal government has designated a place for that status, it receives the highest level of protection until Congress acts. “The move marks the latest instance of Obama’s aggressive use of executive authority to advance his top policy priorities”, writes Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post.

The ANWR holds considerable reserves of petroleum, but is also a critical habitat for Arctic wildlife. Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska is the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Unsurprisingly, she is set to fight the Obama decision. The Governor of Alaska, Bill Walker, issued a statement saying he might have to accelerate giving permits for oil and gas on state lands to compensate for the new federal restrictions.

Can the fate of an area of such key ecological importance really be reduced to a good to be bargained for in a political tit-for-tat?

The Tromso debate continues: do we need Arctic oil?

The Tromso debate continues: do we need Arctic oil?

Conservation groups were over the moon about the Obama move. “Some places are simply too special to drill, and we are thrilled that a federal agency has acknowledged that the refuge merits wilderness protection”, said a statement from Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society.

But apart from the danger of an oil spill and the threat to the habitat of Arctic species, we have to come back to that Tromso conference theme of Climate and Energy. The Arctic is being hit at least twice as fast as the global average by climate change. The ecosystem is already under huge pressure. The Arctic itself is of key importance to global weather patterns. And burning more oil would exacerbate the situation even further. I am reminded of the argument put forward by Jens Ulltveit-Moe, the CEO of  Umoe, himself a former oil industry executive. Apart from the fact that the current low oil price means the Arctic oil hunt is too expensive, if the world is serious about emission cuts to halt climate warming, there is no need for and will be no demand for oil from the Arctic in coming decades.

That is something to be kept in mind as the debate in the USA continues over that precious piece of land and sea that is the ANWR.

 

 

Date

January 26, 2015 | 4:01 pm

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Climate worry grows at Arctic Frontiers

 

Tromso campus, the Arctic University of Norway, hosts Arctic Frontiers

Tromso campus, the Arctic University of Norway, hosts Arctic Frontiers

I have followed the past two days, the political section of the Arctic Frontiers conference, with great interest, with the thought of the Paris climate conference in November always at the back of my mind.

Clearly, in a country rich from the sale of oil, cutting climate-killing emissions is a tricky issue. The oil sector was strongly represented here, but so too were those who see the need for a transition away from fossil fuels in the interests of the global climate.

With climate change opening the Arctic to development and the search for the oil, gas and minerals thought to be locked beneath the icy region, this year’s Arctic Frontiers meeting has attracted record participation. The impact of low oil prices on development prospects, and political tensions between Russia and western Arctic states have heightened interest in listening to what experts and decision-makers have to say on the relation between climate and energy.

Arctic fan Prince Albert of Monaco and US special rep Fran Ulmer debated the feasibility of Arctic oil

Arctic fan Prince Albert of Monaco and US special rep Fran Ulmer debated the feasibility of Arctic oil

With prime ministers from Norway and Finland and other ministers from Sweden and Denmark, as well as the US special Representative for the Arctic and the Russian President’s special representative for international polar cooperation addressing the meeting, media interest is high in this Arctic city, two hours flight north of the Norwegian capital, Oslo. (Looking at my flight schedule, I see Oslo is actually closer to Frankfurt than to the Arctic north of the country).

Do we need Arctic oil in a warming world?

The Norwegian premier Erna Solberg was here for the presentation of a report on sustainable growth in the north, a joint venture by Norway, Sweden and Finland. Gas is one of the four drivers named in the report. She left no doubt about her country’s continuing interest in oil and gas exploitation in the Arctic region. She told me in a brief interview she sees no contradiction between this and attempts to reach a new world climate agreement in Paris at the end of the year:

Norwegian PM Solberg wants to combine climate protection with Arctic gas

Norwegian PM Solberg wants to combine climate protection with Arctic gas

“’We have an oil and gas strategy. There are many not yet found areas where we think there is more gas. We think gas is an important part of a future energy mix, and I think we have to explore to find it.”

The same day, the Norwegian government allocated new licenses for exploration in the north-western Barents sea area of the Arctic. Many of the blocks released for petroleum licensing are close to the sea ice zone that had previously been protected. The zones have now been redefined. Conservation groups are upset. WWF Norway says the announcement is risky, as there is still a lack of knowledge about species and ecosystems in this area.

Will low oil price halt Arctic energy development?

Ice is a problem for shipping and other activities in the dark season

Ice is a problem for shipping and other activities in the dark season

With oil prices at a record low, environmentalists hope Arctic development will slow down or even be put “on ice” permanently. Representatives of WWF told the delegates in Tromso – including high-ranking representatives of major oil companies Statoil and Rosneft – the world does not need oil from the Arctic. And gas should be only a “transition fuel”. Samantha Smith, leader of the ngo’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative, quoted the recent study indicating that 50% of the world’s remaining gas and 30% of the oil must stay in the ground if the two degrees centigrade target for maximum global temperature rise agreed by the international community is to have any chance of being adhered to.  She presented an alternative vision of “a thriving green economy in the white north”, with renewable energies replacing the search for oil and gas.

Business rethinking fossil investment?

tromso2

Tromso: the gateway to the Arctic

As I wrote here on the Ice Blog after the Sunday evening opening, it is not only the environment lobby that is advocating  a switch to renewable enerergy. Jens Ulltveit-Moe, the CEO of  Umoe, one of the largest, privately owned companies in Norway, active amongst other things in shipping and energy, said with the current low oil price, Arctic oil was simply not viable, and this would remain the case for many years to come.  And by then, he said, the EU’s climate targets and the international support for a two-degree target would make fossil fuels a non-option.

But Sjell Giæver, Director of Petroarctic and Tim Dodson, Norwegian Statoil’s Head of Global Exploration, insisted  short-term price drops  alone would not halt Arctic exploration. The region was the last place to discover large new reservoirs to satisfy continuing high demand for oil and gas for an increasing world population.

Oil ventures in the Arctic have not been particularly successful in recent years. Statoil’s Dobson admits the biggest ever exploration drilling programme in the Barents Sea last year had a disappointing outcome. Statoil and others have also withdrawn from the hunt for oil off the coast of Greenland.

Russia hungry for Arctic energy

But the Russian President’s Special Representative for International Cooperation in the Arctic, Arthur Chilingarov, who is also a Member of the Board of Directors at the Russian oil giant Rosneft, stressed the company had completed construction of the northernmost well in the world last September. He said a new oil and gas field has been discovered and the program of Rosneft for 2015 to 2019 provided for a large volume of prospecting and drilling in the western part of the Arctic.

The rector of Tromso Arctic University and the mayor of Tromso have reason to be happy with the participation at this year's Arctic Frontiers event.

The rector of Tromso UiT Arctic University of Norway  Anne Husbeckk and the mayor of Tromso Jens Johan Hyort have reason to be happy with the attendance at this year’s Arctic Frontiers event.

One factor however that is slowing Russian activity the Arctic is the implementation of sanctions by European countries and the USA on account of the tensions over Ukraine. Russia has turned to China and other countries for help, but the lack of western technology is an obstacle to further development in a region where bad weather, ice, remoteness and complete darkness in the winter months make oil and gas development a risky business.

There is a clear tendency amongst those involved in Arctic cooperation to play down the sanctions and keep political tensions out of the region. Norwegian President Solberg told me: “We have a good relationship in the Arctic Council with Russia. We have said we will be in line with Europe on sanctions, although Norway is one of the countries hit most by the counter-sanctions from Russia, for instance the fact that oil and gas exploration are among the sanction areas.”

But in the meantime, on a day-to-day basis, cooperation continues, for instance in the joint management of fish resources, said Solberg.

Business as usual?

While the debate continued in the political section of Arctic Frontiers, a new, business strand of the conference opened in parallel. It focuses – on oil, gas and minerals.   Olav Orheim from GRID Arendal, a centre that works with UNEP, stressed that a lot of people here are in favour of Arctic oil and gas exploration, in the interests of jobs and economic benefits.Yet after the publication of last year’s IPCC report and with climate change high on the international agenda, there seems to be a wider acceptance here in Tromso of the disconnect between burning fossil fuels and the ever more urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Gunnar Sand is Vice President of  SINTEF, the Norwegian “Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research”,  which has close ties to the oil business. From a moral point of view, “we all want to stay below the two degree limit”, says Sand. But it is not possible to change a society and an infrastructure based on fossil fuels overnight.

Technical progress too slow to stop warming

Technology for renewable energy is still not developing fast enough, says Sand. Emission reduction scenarios also rely heavily on carbon capture and storage (CCS), which would reduce emissions from fossil fuel burning and bridge the transition to a low-carbon economy. But the technology, which he himself has been involved in, is moving too slowly. I first met him during a visit to Svalbard, when he told me about a carbon capture and storage project, designed to capture emissions from Longyearbjen’s power station underground. He confirmed in Tromso that it has never been put into action.

Global warming, Sand says, is the most serious challenge of our time. This has to be reflected in political priorities. Governments have to create economic incentives to speed up change.

Chairman of the conference steering committee and master of ceremonies sporting a sealskin bow tie.

Salve Dahle, Chairman of the conference steering committee and master of ceremonies sporting a sealskin bow tie.

US special representative ex-Admiral Robert Papp indicated dealing with climate change would be one of the key policy drivers when the USA takes over the Chair of the Arctic Council, the international body that coordinates Arctic affairs, in April.

The Chair of the US Arctic Research Commission Fran Ulmer says a carbon tax would be the best way forward, to encourage industry and consumers to save energy and cut emissions.  But she acknowledged the reluctance of governments to impose decisions that could upset their voters at the next election. That is the reality we face as countries weigh up their pledges for the November climate conference in Paris.

If polar bears had a vote...

If polar bears had a vote…

Date

January 21, 2015 | 6:49 pm

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Tromso filmfest inspires US Arctic envoy

Films and culture in plenty in Norway's "Arctic capital"

Films and culture in plenty in Norway’s “Arctic capital”

Tromso prides itself on being the “capital of the north”. As well as the Arctic Frontiers conference, which is happening this week, TIFF, the Tromso International Film Festival has been running here. There is an amazing amount of culture for a place which seems so far from the city life of Oslo, the Norwegian capital. With a huge variety of films showing around the town, including the Oscar possible “Birdman”, the town was buzzing at the weekend.

Fun for kids in Tromso centre

Fun for kids in Tromso centre

I was fascinated to find these kids in their snowsuits settled in the city centre, waiting for a showing of Disney’s Frozen. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one. At Arctic Frontiers today, the US Special Representative (ex Admiral) Robert Papp, told the story of how he and the Chair of the US Arctic Research Commission, Fran Ulmer, had shared a taxi into town from the airport and come across that same little outdoor film show.

Outdoor cinema, Arctic style

Outdoor cinema, Arctic style

He talked about his granddaughters and their fascination for the Disney figures, and whether Disney couldn’t be a good way to educate American children about the Arctic. The story goes that he suggested this to a leading figure in the movie company. Why not replace films showing a fantasy vision of the Arctic by movies about the plight of polar bears, villages in danger of collapsing through coastal erosion and other such stories. The Disney rep was apparently very put out. “We have to project optimism and have happy endings”, he reportedly told the Admiral.

Hot drinks and snacks in the film festival café!

Hot drinks and snacks in the film festival café!

Papp says he still feels optimistic, as he presented the programme for the upcoming US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a programme he says is rightly described as “ambitious”. The theme is “One Arctic. Shared opportunities, challenges and responsibilities”. With the impacts of the dispute between the west and Ukraine on the agenda this afternoon, it sounds like a good approach to Arctic governance.

Date

January 19, 2015 | 5:21 pm

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Arctic Oil – a white elephant?

Tromso, the home of Arctic Frontiers

Tromso, the home of Arctic Frontiers

The conference: Arctic Frontiers has attracted a record number of participants this year and huge media interest. For the first time in addition to a political and a science section, there is also a business section. It will focus on oil, gas and minerals. Clearly, once more, the Arctic is a “hot topic”.

The conference opened with an exceptionally good panel discussion tonight. The conference title is “Climate and Energy”, and it is hardly surprising that there is a lively debate on that here. Norway is, after all, an oil nation, but at the same time a country well known for innovation and wise financial management. And then, of course, comes the urgency of the climate conundrum…

Prince Albert and Fran Ulmer

Prince Albert and Fran Ulmer

Here in Tromso, Norway’s “Arctic capital”, the question of Arctic oil obviously plays a key role. The representative of the region Line Miriam Sandberg, County administrator for business, culture and health, and the panel chair Olav Orheim, (GRID Arendal, a centre that works with UNEP) made it quite clear that a lot of people here are in favour of Arctic development, including oil and gas exploration, in the interests of jobs and economic benefits.

The representative of the oil industry Kjell Giæver, Director of Petroarctic found himself a bit out on a limb, though. Apart from the Tromso representative, there was no real support for or confidence in Arctic oil development amongst the panelists.  Guest of honour HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, who is quite committed to Arctic protection and has a tradition of Arctic exploration in his family, stressed the need to protect against any dangers to the fragile environment.

Advocates oil from the Arctic: Kjell Giæver

Advocates oil from the Arctic: Kjell Giæver

The Chair of the  US Arctic Research Commission Fran Ulmer called for a carbon tax and measures to protect the climate and reduce fossil fuel consumption. Although she stressed this was her personal opinion and she could not speak for ANY government (!), she is obviously in a very influential position, and anything she says on this has to be taken seriously.

It will come as no surprise that Nina Jensen, CEO of WWF Norway, is against oil exploration in the Arctic. I can remember her here at previous conferences having a much more difficult time, with plenty of opposition from other speakers. This time, my impression was that she was definitely not in a minority.

P1010324

Keeping a wary eye on his Arctic home…

Probably the most noteworthy stance – certainly the one that impressed me most – was taken by Jens Ulltveit-Moe, the CEO of  Umoe, one of the largest, privately owned companies in Norway, active amongst other things in shipping and energy. Here we had an industry representative, who said quite clearly that with the current low oil price Arctic oil was simply not viable, and this would remain the case for many years to come. (The oil industry rep as you can imagine disagreed). And by then, he said, the EU’s climate targets and the international support for a two-degree target would make fossil fuels a non-option. The future lies in renewables, he says, and Arctic oil investment will probably be a white elephant. (His group is involved in bioenergy), Now there is food for thought at the start of this high-profile gathering, which will see high-ranking government representatives from the Arctic nations, but also China and others, discuss “climate and energy”. If the opening debate is anything to go by, the next two days will be very lively.

 

Date

January 19, 2015 | 12:07 am

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A good haul for polar night team

Light in the polar darkness

Light in the polar darkness

The Polar Night cruise will come to an end on Tuesday, when the last of the scientists will leave the ship with their samples. I was able to stay until the end of the week, when I left the ship at Ny Alesund with some of the researchers, who were changing places with colleagues. I have left Svalbard, but not the Arctic. More about my current whereabouts later.

A good haul in the polar night

It was interesting to hear that our scientists were happy with their “catch”. Sören Häfke, the German scientist from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, had more than enough of the little crustaceans calanus finmarchius. When they get back to Germany, they can start their genetic analysis to find how their biological clock works in the dark, Arctic winter. In summer, it is assumed light tells them when to come to the surface to feed and when to go down deeper to avoid predators. But what happens in winter, when it is dark all day long? I will look forward to hearing what they find out.

Valuable mud!

Valuable mud!

The Russian team had plenty of interesting sediment samples to look into. The others on board also seemed to be happy with the plankton, crustaceans and small fish they brought in for further research. Marine Cusa was a bit unhappy about the lack of polar cod in the fjord. There seemed to be no shortage of larger Atlantic cod. This is related to the amount of Atlantic water currently present in the fjord, expedition leader Stig Falk-Petersen explained to me. It looks as if Marine will be changing the subject of her Master’s thesis. But I have the feeling it will be no less interesting.

Tiny creatures, just a spoonful!

Tiny creatures, just a spoonful!

“Life doesn’t stop when the light goes out”

Paul Renaud, a Professor at the University Centre in Svalbard, coordinated the logistics of the expedition on board as well as conducting his own biological research. He is one of those who came up with this Polar Night project. As he sums it up, there is a need to follow up on the few studies done in the last ten years which  indicate that there is much more activity in the Arctic ocean in winter than previously thought. This must be triggered by processes other than light. Light is critical for the functioning of the ecosystem, but “it’s not that when the light goes out, everything stops functioning”, Paul told me.

paul renaud

Paul can be happy with a succesful expedition.

From the samples I was shown under the microscope, I can confirm that there is indeed plenty of life going on. And many of the creatures were carrying eggs.

Climate paradox: easier access – shifting parameters

I asked Paul what was driving the surge of research into the Arctic winter. Firstly, new technology makes it possible to take measurements under the ice, and all year round, when there is no-one up  here, he explains.  Buoys tethered to the ice are one example. A series of permanent observatories has also been set up in the fjords here, measuring temperature, salinity, oxygen, light, chlorophyll and the movement of plankton. The number of research stations in the region has also increased.

The other major factor is quite clearly climate change. The absence of ice makes it much easier to sail up here, says Paul.  Just 20 years ago, this fjord would have been completely covered with ice at this time. Now the sea ice is only found in the far reaches of the fjord. But Paul confirmed my theory that while warming is making access easier, it is also changing the parameters the scientists want to measure.  “We are addressing a moving target”, is how he describes it.

Plenty cleaning to be done on the trawl deck

Plenty cleaning to be done on the trawl deck

Ice, less ice, no ice?

When it comes to forecasting how the Arctic ocean and its ecosystem will react to climate change in the long term, the scientists here say we desperately need more data. The IPCC gives around ten scenarios for how climate in the Arctic could develop, Paul explains.  Clearly, if we can rely on predictions that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer from the middle of the century at the latest, that will have certain effects on ecosystems

Some organisms can be very flexible, says Renaud, not breeding for ten years and still continuing their populations. But short-lived organisms that rely on a certain timing of ice or live in the sea ice may well be more seriously affected. But without more information, it is impossible to tell how they will react in the long term.

Along with climate change, increased development is bringing more changes to this once inaccessible region, as discussed many times here on the Ice Blog and in my articles for dw.de. Paul is involved in developing monitoring practices. He stresses this is new territory for economic activities like oil exploration, fisheries, tourism and shipping, and that we urgently need more data on the effect of these activities on sensitive components of the Arctic ecosystems.

Can science keep pace with development?

One question I seek the answer to when I talk to Arctic experts is: can this research keep pace with the speed of the development? The answer depends partly, of course, on how fast that development will be. The Svalbard expert says there will still be sea ice in the Arctic in winter for the foreseeable future, around 100-150 years. That will slow economic activities like oil and gas exploration. “That buys us a little more time”, says the marine biologist. But he sees a huge challenge to identify and monitor the impacts of rapidly growing activities like tourism and shipping.

The washing machines on the Helmer Hanssen were doing overtime

The washing machines on the Helmer Hanssen were doing overtime

As I packed up to prepare to leave the Helmer Hanssen at the Ny Alesund research station, Paul was giving his instructions to the scientific team. Some were leaving with me, others staying on for the next section. Coordinating the cleaning of the laboratory and deck areas still well splattered with mud, then the packing up and labeling of the samples and equipment, is a major operation. I thought it better not to whinge about fitting my cameras, recorders and Arctic gear into their bags, which somehow seemed to have shrunk over the past week.

On our last night in dock at Ny Alesund, we were treated (not for the first time this week) to some northern lights, eerily dancing across the black Arctic sky. A wicked wind bit at our faces as we headed once again for the world’s northernmost marine lab. The researchers brought crates of samples. I  myself brought a treasure trove of stories,  ready to go online. The Arctic in winter is harsh but has a charm of its own. It was fascinating to experience the Polar Night, but I was looking forward to my next Arctic destination a bit further south, venue for the major Arctic conference: Arctic Frontiers.

light and land

Back to light and land

I am now in Tromso, Norway’s “Arctic capital”, where the sun will be reappearing above the horizon this week and the magic pink, pale blue, silvery grey and white Arctic light is already in evidence for several hours a day.

Date

January 18, 2015 | 10:31 pm

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