An influential cross-party group of MPs has challenged David Cameron to return to the Arctic, accusing his government of being dangerously complacent about oil exploration in the region.
In a pointed reference to the Prime Minister’s famous photograph with Arctic huskies in 2006, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns that his lack of decisive action to curb oil and gas activities there risks fuelling “dangerous climate destabilisation”.
The photograph, taken in Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, was part of Mr Cameron’s drive to present himself as a modern, green politician. On that trip, he pledged to lead a “new green revolution” – a message memorably repeated four years later, when Mr Cameron announced in May 2010 that his newly formed coalition would be “the greenest government ever”.
But the Labour MP Joan Walley, who chairs the EAC, said the Prime Minister had fallen well short of his environmental pledges.
“David Cameron should visit the Arctic again to see the huge changes that have taken place since he was last there and renew his commitment to protecting the region,” she said.
“What happens in the Arctic will affect the UK, impacting our weather systems and biodiversity. Yet this government is complacently standing by and watching new oil and gas drilling in the region,” Ms Walley added.
She argues that exploring for hydrocarbons in the pristine Arctic region could not only be disastrous for the environment – in the event of an oil spill – but represents a “needlessly risky” venture. This is because the world already has more proven oil and gas reserves than can be burnt without exceeding a global average temperature rise of 2C, the level beyond which most scientists agree the fallout from global warming would become rapidly more devastating.
“The government has failed to provide a coherent argument to support its view that exploring for oil and gas in the Arctic is compatible with avoiding dangerous climate destabilisation,” Ms Walley said.
So far, there has been very little oil and gas activity in the - often frozen – waters off the shores of the eight Arctic Circle countries (there has been plenty of onshore production but that is not nearly as high-risk).
But the rapid melting of the Arctic ice has opened up a new oil frontier which companies such as BP and Shell are positioning themselves to exploit.
The ice shrank to an all-time low of 3.41 million square kilometres last September – 50 per cent below the average between 1979 and 2000 - and the Met Office predicts the water could become totally ice-free in the summer as soon as 2025.
Advocates of Arctic drilling say the summer melt has made it feasible to produce oil between the months July and October, while depleted conventional hydrocarbon reserves and soaring demand for energy has put pressure on companies to tap ever less conventional resources. (At the moment it is irrelevant that the world is on course to breach the 2C climate change target since any possible agreement to limit warming to this level is at least two years away).
Opponents to drilling in the Arctic say the tough and unpredictable weather conditions and rapidly moving ice blocks make an oil spill more likely and its consequences more devastating.
“If you think the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was bad, imagine how bad it would have been in the Arctic. That incident was only 50 kilometres from Houston, which could deploy thousands of ships, tens of thousands of workers and hundreds of aircraft to tackle the problem – and it still took months to shut down in water temperatures so warm they were verging on the tropical,” said Charlie Kronick, senior climate adviser for Greenpeace.
“If you got a spill at the end of the season in October, it could pump oil for ten months before you could get to it and oil doesn’t break down in cold water,” he added.
Although some hydrocarbon companies believe Arctic oil exploration promises much, it has so far delivered little. Over the past six years, Shell has spent about £3bn off the coast of Alaska but is yet to produce a single drop of oil, while its Artic project is on hold at the moment pending two US government investigations after one of its oil rigs broke free in a storm and crashed on New Year’s Eve.
BP, which suspended a project to produce oil off the coast of Alaska last year, is in talks with Russia’s Rosneft with a view to jointly exploring the Russian Arctic, but those talks have so far come to nothing.
In fact, Norway’s Statoil is the only company producing oil in the Arctic Ocean at the moment, although this is simpler and less dangerous because it is in the ice-free Barents Sea portion of the waters, experts said.
The EAC said the government wields huge power over the Arctic, despite not being located in the region, which it should use to push for a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic.
It is a key member of the United Nations and one of only six countries outside the Arctic with a say in how the block is run.
A government spokesman said: “We disagree with the Committee’s call for a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling. We are very well aware of the possible impact of an oil spill in an Arctic state…However, the UK is not an Arctic state and it is not for us to tell other countries which resources they can and cannot extract from their own sovereign territory.”