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Eco-group questions Iceland oil

This would me my preferred means of transport here

No oil needed for this one! (I. Quaile 2014)

Back in January, China’s state-owned oil company CNOOC obtained an Arctic exploration licence for the remote Dreki area, 125 miles off the north coast of Iceland. Iceland has very close relations with Beijing. When I interviewed the Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson at an event in Tromso earlier this year, he told me:

“We have a very good cooperation with China. We hope our Free Trade Agreement will be fully implemented in the summer. China is a very big player in the world economy. They are showing interest in the Arctic, interest in western Europe, and we treat them like anybody else in the world. As long as they play by Icelandic rules, Icelandic law, we don’t worry. I see opportunities in working with China, no threats”.

I was interested to come across a short item by the news agency AFP about a group that sees Arctic development a little differently; the Iceland Nature Conservation Association. Their opposition has nothing to do with the fact that China is investing in the region, but with the basic fossil fuels-climate paradox. The agency quotes the chairman, Arni Finnsson:

“Iceland should not bet on oil at a time when it is doubtful that humanity can reach its (greenhouse gas) goals.”

Apart from the climate implications, Finnsson says oil production in the area envisaged by CNOOC along with Icelandic firm Eykon Energy and Norway’s state-owned Petoro  is unlikely to be cost-efficient. The cost factor is one analysts say will play the key role in determining whether offshore oil exploration in the Arctic will be viable, as discussed on various occasions here on the Ice Blog.

Iceland is still recovering from the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and hopes to follow in neighbouring Norway’s footsteps and build a lucrative oil industry.  ”That is the hope,” Thorarinn Sveinn Arnarson, who heads the hydrocarbon licensing department at Iceland’s national energy authority, told AFP.  “If something is found that is economically viable there would be tax benefits and of course all the other things, job creation and technical capacity like we’ve seen in Norway and in the Faroe Islands.”

But experts warn that this vision could be some way off if it ever materialises. Dag Claes, a leading oil and gas expert at the University of Oslo, stresses the remoteness of the area. He also draws attention to the problems of developing a suitable infrastructure for an oil industry in this part of the world, a problem I wrote about here on the Blog recently. You might also like to check out the article: Are we prepared for a catastrophe in the Arctic?

 

Date

March 7, 2014 | 12:47 pm

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Arctic infrastructure cannot keep pace

Tromso harbour 2014 (I.Quaile)

Tromso harbour 2014 (I.Quaile)

The Russian response to Greenpeace’s protest at the Arctic Prirazlomnoye oil rig made it clear to a lot of people that in spite of  environmental concerns, the commercialization of the region is proceeding “full speed ahead”and enjoying top political priority. The controversial rig went into production at the end of the last year. Shipping has also increased dramatically in Arctic waters in the last few years, with international freight companies using the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast to transport gas and other commodities. This reduces the distance between Shanghai and Hamburg by around 6,400 kilometers, compared with the usual route via the Suez Canal. Tourism  is also on the up, with an increasing number of cruise ships making their way through Arctic waters during the summer months. What happens if one of these ships sinks? When the Costa Concordia cruise ship hit rocks off the italian island of Giglio in January 2012 and tipped onto its side, the risks of this kind of tourism became graphically clear. The thought of something like that happening with an iceberg in the remote regions around Spitsbergen or Greenland doesn’t bear thinking about. But that, of course, is exactly what we have to do with a view to minimising risks for people and the environment.

The Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies  has examined existing infrastructure in the six Arctic coastal states (USA, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Russia). I attended a workshop as a side-event to the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso in January, where the initial results were presented. They should really set the alarm bells ringing.
Kathrin Keil from the IASS Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, looked at developments in the oil and gas sector. She warned that the unpredictability and variability of weather and ice conditions would severely limit the options for responding to an oil accident in the region. The ice cover in May can be between 30 and 90 percent, she explained.
The ice-free period can be as short as one month or as long as nine. To date, there is no adequate technology available to successfully deal with the results of an oil spill in Arctic waters. The Institute also says the ‘Oil Spill Response Plan’ provided by Gazprom for the Prirazlomnoye rig lacks detail. The rig is located close to several nature reserves and Kail warns that these areas would be extremely vulnerable if oil or fuel were to spill. She argues for the tightest possible safety regulations, given that this is the first offshore oil platform to go into operation in the Arctic.
Not enough icebreakers
The existing infrastructure is also inadequate for the increase in Arctic shipping, says Malte Humpert, Executive Director of the Arctic Institute. He says the icebreaker fleet is not big enough to support the growing number of vessels sailing through Arctic regions.
The increase in the number of cruise boats, especially near the Norwegian Spitsbergen archipelago and off the west coast of Greenland, is another cause for concern. If a cruise ship carrying 3,000 people were to collide with an iceberg near the popular tourist town Ilulissat, the existing search and rescue capacity would not be sufficient to cope. The available planes, helicopters and ships would be too few and take too long to reach the accident site, says Arctic Institute’s Marc Jacobsen.

I photographed this ship amongst the icebergs of Ilulissat in 2009

I photographed this ship amongst the icebergs of Ilulissat in 2009

With just 4,500 residents, Ilulissat would be unable to provide adequate medical treatment or shelter for people affected by the crash. Oil and other toxic chemicals dumped by the damaged vessel would be very difficult to clean-up. There is also a shortage of satellite, internet and mobile phone connections, meaning communication would be limited.

Politicians are prepared to take risks
The risks of the increasing commercialization of the Arctic are high on the priority of the region’s politicians, says Magnus Johannesson, Director of the Permanent Secretariat of the Arctic Council . In an interview at his office in Tromsø  he stressed to me the importance of ongoing negotiations aimed at introducing a ‘Polar Code’ to regulate Arctic shipping. It is set to come into effect in 2016. Johannesson also referred to the SAREX exercises conducted in 2013. These simulated a shipping accident to test search and rescue capacity. But Marc Jacobsen from the Arctic Institute says the exercise was too small in scale to provide a realistic picture of readiness. There were only 250 people on the vessel used in the mock accident.
“I think everyone is aware that there could be better infrastructure, but these are the first steps,” Johannesson told me . “The Arctic states are very aware of that and doing their best to speed this up”.
Disaster in the Arctic:  a possibility
Anton Vasiliev, Russia’s ambassador to the Arctic Council, assumes his country will have proper infrastructure in place along the Northern Sea Route within the next few years. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson also told me in an interview in Tromso he was confident that security and response infrastructure would be improved.
“In the end we are always worried about the ocean around Iceland, so the environment and security matter. The possibility of a disaster in the Arctic is why we are paying so much attention to the region,” he told me. “The attention to the economic potential of the Arctic is growing fast. But I don’t think it is moving so fast that we cannot manage it.”
But environmental groups are increasingly concerned about commerical activity in the Arctic. I noticed a distinct lack of ngo participation at the Arctic Frontiers event this year. The price of conference attendance seeems to be one factor that reduces the number of ngo people attending. On the official programme, it seems only one ngo is officially invited to speak each year. This year, it was WWF’s turn, and Nina Jensen the CEO was on one of the panels.  I interviewed her in Tromso and she told me:  “With the increasing ship traffic, there is a higher risk of accidents and pollution that will impact both humans and wildlife to a very serious extent. We do not know enough about the marine environment to be able to avoid serious impacts. We do not have adequate regulations in place, and there is no sufficient oil spill preparedness.” While she welcomes the Polar Code, she stresses it is only a first step, and fails to tackle issues such as black carbon pollution, invasive species and the use of heavy fuel oil.

She sees a huge discrepancy between the political rhetoric, with politicians all paying lip service to the need for a better infrastructure to protect the fragile Arctic environment, but taking little action to make this happen in time.

We also talked about the huge paradox that is Arctic oil drilling. Climate change is making it possible – and burning oil, in turn, is creating the emissions which cause climate change. The world needs to get away from fossil fuel,  says Jensen. The future of the Arctic  has to be  renewable.

My article on this is on the DW website: Are we prepared for a catastrophe in the Arctic?

Date

February 10, 2014 | 10:13 am

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Arctic hot topic in icy Tromso

View from the campus at Tromso this lunchtime

View from the campus at Tromso this lunchtime

It’s standing room only for anyone who came a bit late to the opening of Arctic Frontiers this morning. This event has become huge. The organisers say there will be around a thousand participants and plenty of journalists. When I first came here six years ago, the number of journalists was minimal. Now the Arctic has moved up to the top of the international agenda because of climate change and easier access.

Politicians, scientists, diplomats, think tanks, participants from all round the globe have made the trip to Tromso in the Norwegian Arctic for what has become one of the major events relating to the Arctic.

The Norwegian Fisheries Minister was speaking this morning, the Foreign Minister of Iceland, the Chair of the Arctic Council Senior Officials group Canada’s Patrick Borbey and representatives from the USA and Russia. The UK, Japan and Italy have also been on stage – yes, the Arctic is clearly of relevance to the whole planet.

Arctic Frontiers at Tromso University

Arctic Frontiers at Tromso University

I will go into more detail later, but for now it must suffice to say they are all stressing their interest in Arctic development while (in theory?) protecting the environment and the human rights and traditional lifestyles of the indigenous peoples at home in this still remote and cold region at the top of the planet. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson told me he did not fear commercial development could be outpacing environmental protection. More from that interesting interview another time.

The Russian “Ambassador at Large” for the Arctic Anton Vasilev talked a lot about Russia’s interest in peaceful development and keeping military conflict out of the Arctic. Some of the participants were discussing at lunch how this fits the upsurge in military activity up there and the planting of the polar flag expedition, with both Russia and Canada claiming sovereignty.

Norwegian Fisheries Minister Elisabeth Aspaker and Iceland's Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson in Tromso

Norwegian Fisheries Minister Elisabeth Aspaker and Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson in Tromso

This afternoon Statoil and other players are talking about oil and gas development. An interesting subject. Forgive me if I stop here to listen on. The debate is livening up with a question by a Sami participant to the Director General of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association Sturla Henriksen. She’s asking (and she’s not alone) whether it wouldn’t be better to invest in new technologies and find ways of reducing emissions to halt the climate change which is causing problems for so many indigenous people in the Arctic. He says he respects indigenous traditions, but stresses shorter shipping routes for instance would benefit wider society in general.

More this evening! And tweets in between @iceblogger

 

 

Date

January 20, 2014 | 1:11 pm

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Lanterns out for Arctic protesters

Greenpeace lantern marchers Bonn

I have just come back from Bonn, where Greenpeace  supporters  joined in their own version of the traditional lantern processions which take place here at this time.  Children and parents carry home made lanterns  to mark St.Martin’s  day, in memory of the saint who cut his cloak in half to give warmth to a beggar. In the Greenpeace marches held across Germany today, the marchers were swinging their lanterns in an appeal for the release of the Arctic 30, the crew of the Arctic Sunrise still under arrest in Russia. The procession in Bonn was heading for the Russian consulate here. It was  a well timed event, marking two months of imprisonment for the peaceful protesters and the UN climate conference in Warsaw at the halfway mark.

Sabine from Aachen brought a Russian message on her lantern

Date

November 16, 2013 | 5:43 pm

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Philippines, Warsaw, Arctic – join the dots

Building work on the UN climate building in Bonn

UN climate agreement – a work in progress (Pic: I. Quaile, UN Campus Bonn)

I have very mixed feelings as the UN climate conference gets underway in Warsaw just as the Philippines are devastated by what seems to have been the worst storm ever. The experts tell us climate change is extremely likely to be increasing the severity of extreme weather events. It is not hard to see the possibility of a link. And where does the Arctic come in? Well, the only Arctic headlines at the moment would seem to be the ongoing saga of the Greenpeace activists still under arrest in Russia after the protest at the Prirazlomnaya Arctic oil rig. Connection clear?

Amongst the mixed bag of emotions I am currently shuffling are horror at the extent of the storm devastation in the Philippines, intense sympathy with the victims, helplessness in the face of the huge force of typhoon Haiyan. Then comes deep frustration, verging on anger at the failure of the world’s big emitters so far to take action to reduce emissions and avert what the world’s scientists and the UN tell us will be catastrophic climate change, if we don’t keep to the two degree target.  Add to this my complete failure to understand the continuing rush to get oil from the Arctic – regardless of the fact that this would, in turn, contribute further to the vicious circle of climate change.

Some 13% of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil reserves, 30% of its gas are estimated to be in the Arctic. The higher the price of energy, the faster the ice melts, the greater the international interest in a region becoming increasingly accessible as the world continues to warm. At the same time concern is growing amongst those who see development as a threat to the sensitive environment of the High North and the lifestyles of indigenous peoples there – and an increasing risk for the global climate: the burning of more fossil fuels would further intensify global change by producing more CO2 emissions. According to the World Energy Outlook 2012, two thirds of our known fossil fuel reserves would have to remain in the earth, if the goal of limiting temperature rise to two degrees Celsius and averting catastrophic climate change is to be reached.

Frozen Waves, Chukchi Sea, Barrow, Alaska

Beautiful, but in jeopardy. The Arctic
(Chukchi Sea, Barrow, Alaska. Pic:I Quaile)

The harsh nature of Russia’s reaction to the Greenpeace protest at the Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Arctic demonstrates how important the region has become for the government in Moscow. While Greenpeace has stepped up its campaign to stop oil drilling in the Arctic and have the activists and ship released, the business of Arctic exploration and development just “carries on regardless”. Rosneft, Statoil, Italy’s ENI, Exxon Mobil, Shell… are all active in the Arctic. China and India are also keen. The UK recently unveiled plans to become a hub for Arctic oil exploration. Meanwhile, Greenpeace, is campaigning for the area around the North Pole to be declared a sanctuary and protected from drilling or other industrial exploitation. In addition to environmental campaign groups, the “Fossil Free Campaign” initiated by US American Bill Mc Kibben is gaining influence, trying to persuade companies and institutions to withdraw investments from fossil fuel-related enterprises. Perhaps that will be the way to bring about a change of heart?

Returning to the UN climate talks in Warsaw, my mixed bag of emotions unfortunately does not contain a lot of optimism at the moment. Maybe just a sliver of hope that all is not yet lost. But looking at host country Poland’s record as a coal country and recent statements by its political leaders insisting this would remain so, and bearing in mind that the country has consistently blocked the EU from adopting stricter climate goals (which, admittedly, appears to suit many other member states), it is hard to imagine this conference bringing much in the way of progress. While top emitter China is paying more attention to its environment and climate policies, the country’s rejection of international binding targets makes considerable progress unlikely.

It would be wrong to use the typhoon disaster in the Philippines just to attract more attention to the climate conference in Poland. Clearly getting international aid out to the region has to have top priority. But there is surely a moral imperative to act upon the warnings of our scientists that business as usual is extremely likely to increase the severity of storm and flood events, which hurt the needy worst of all? And would that not have to include the realization that burning fossil fuels is helping to melt the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet – with negative effects not only on the people and ecosystems in the region, but – through feedback effects, sea level rise, increasing ocean acidity etc – on the regulation of the world climate? And thus, that investing in renewable energies and the transition to a green economy makes more sense than Arctic oil exploration?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Date

November 11, 2013 | 4:15 pm

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