The Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic don't seem to have much in common. One is located in the midst of human civilisation and is surrounded by millions of people living in a warm tropical climate; the other is characterised by vast expanses of wilderness, an extreme climate of ice, wind and freezing temperatures and ranges from sparsely populated to totally uninhabited space.
Yet despite their differences, the Gulf and the Arctic do have some things in common - one very important thing in the presence of oil, and oil drilling operations that are pushing the very edge of technological capacity. Easy oil is over and the petroleum industry is being forced to plumb the unknown ocean depths for its oil, or to set its rigs amidst the uncertainties of arctic sea ice.
The Arctic is considered one of the largest untapped hydrocarbon reserves on the planet, and it is clear that this area will play a role in the global energy market. It is also clear that as the carbon in the atmosphere steadily erodes the annual extent of arctic sea ice, accessing this oil and gas is becoming less and less theoretical. Unfortunately, what remains theoretical is the technology required to effectively manage the environmental risks that come hand in hand with arctic oil. Up to this point, governments and industry have turned a blind eye to the technological limitations of response capability. The Gulf of Mexico calamity has forced the entire planet to reconsider what is responsible, and where regulators need to step in for the protection of the environment and the people that depend upon it.
But while questions are being asked and commissions formed, drilling is already proceeding in the Arctic. WWF poses the question: “What if the Gulf happens in the Arctic today?” The Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have called this area home for millennia – they need the jobs and prosperity that could be provided by development, but they are increasingly wary of the trade-offs that may accompany industrial development. Viewpoints across the Arctic differ regarding if and when oil should be accessed, but concern is rapidly outweighing a drive for short-term profits. WWF feels that the only logical approach is to call a halt on new drilling until governments, industry, NGOs and the people of the Arctic have time to answer the questions posed in this edition about the safety and sustainability of offshore arctic oil drilling, including its impact on global energy. We believe those who support drilling must be able to demonstrate that such activities are safe and sustainable before drilling plans are approved. Following the report from the US commission into the Gulf spill, a critical decision will lie before arctic governments. WWF is looking forward to working with governments and industry to make sure that the decision taken is the right one.