Leading article: The case for a moratorium on oil drilling in the arctic is overwhelming

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The arguments against drilling for oil in the Arctic are so clear they should make themselves. Given that the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico proved such a challenge to technically-adept BP last year, the difficulty of shutting off a leak in a climate of sub-zero temperatures, which is pitch dark and frozen solid for six months of every 12, can only be imagined.

The potential damage to the environment is equally extreme. The Arctic is indescribably hostile, but also fragile – a pristine, wilderness ecosystem barely touched by human interference. As Cambridge University's Professor Peter Wadhams, one of the world's most respected polar scientists, warns in this newspaper today, an Arctic spill could prove uncontrollable, and its impact catastrophic. In such a context, the case for an absolute moratorium on Arctic drilling is overwhelming.

The alleged greed of big oil companies, and pressure from gung-ho local populations eager for a slice of the lucrative hydrocarbon action, are cited as risk factors by those campaigning against polar drilling. Yet it has to be acknowledged that the pressure for new oil sources is driven by valid fears over the risks that uncontrolled oil prices – and future oil shortages – carry for global stability.

Such concerns only make the argument for fossil-free alternatives, from nuclear power to renewable energy generation to biofuels, stronger than ever. Against the backdrop of galloping growth in developing economies and a global population set to rise by a third by 2050, it is the development of sustainable energy supplies that must be the priority, not the false promise of Arctic oil.

Proponents of Arctic drilling may point to technological advances, strict regulatory regimes and careful monitoring in an attempt to bolster their argument. But they are missing the point. First, accidents can never be absolutely avoided. More important, the impact of any accident is exponentially more destructive than anything similar in warmer waters. The nature of the interaction between oil and ice will see the oil absorbed deep into ice packs – locked beyond detection, let alone the reach of clean-up operations – and potentially dumped thousands of miles away, months later, with no warning.

If Deepwater Horizon taught us anything, it was that regulation does not stop oil spills and does not help clean them up. The risks in the Arctic are simply too great. It would be grossly irresponsible to go ahead.

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