A new report, Impacts Of A Warming Arctic, by a multi-government-backed scientific group, acknowledges the deep problems faced by humanity regarding global warming.
But it also points to possible benefits for oil exploration, extraction and shipping with possible energy industry advances for the artic “sub region”, including Alaska and western Canada.
The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum comprising Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) is a non-governmental organisation that facilitates cooperation in all aspects of arctic research.
Their report says: “Extensive oil and gas reserves have been discovered in Alaska along the Beaufort sea coast and … offshore oil exploration and production are likely to benefit from less extensive and thinner ice.”
Marine access to oil, gas and mineral resources is likely to improve as sea ice retreats
They also note that the Canadian “northwest passage” is likely to offer opportunities for oil and commodity shipping. “The costs and benefits of a longer shipping season in the Canadian arctic areas are likely to be significant.”
Siberia will also see “the opening of the Northern Sea Route to commercial shipping. Summertime access to most coastal waters of the Eurasian arctic is projected to be relatively ice free within a few decades, with much more extensive melting later in the century.”
This means that the “oil and natural gas industries are likely to [have] improved access by sea”.
Norway’s oil industry, traditionally one of the biggest in the world, will also see benefits from this unprecedented climatic change as “marine access to oil, gas and mineral resources is likely to improve as sea ice retreats”.
But this is where the “good news” ends.
The report draws less than positive conclusions about global warming and its effects on the artic wilderness. Rather than assuming a positive note, much of the effects of increased access to oil deposits are in fact negative.
Oil spills will increase and access by land may be harder. In fact any possible benefit that the oil industry may receive will be outweighed by the deep disadvantages global warming will bring.
Some of those dangers are already here.
As ice roads melt “access to resources by land is likely to be hampered in many places due to a shortening of the season during which the ground is sufficiently frozen for travel”, the report says.
Locals adversely affected
Local economies, local culture, health and the diversity of arctic nature are all likely to be adversely affected.
“Tidal forces” are likely to be much stronger, erosion and damage along coastlines will probably be significantly greater.
Infrastructure, including oil pipelines, rigs and associated buildings are going to falter and fail as the ground underneath them starts to melt.
“Coastal erosion will pose increasing problems for some ports, tanker terminals and other industrial facilities. Some towns and industrial facilities are already facing severe damage and some are facing relocation as warming begins to take its toll.”
In Russia, there are signs of what may be to come. Oil works built on the softening, eroding land are no longer safe from the elements. In fact their very existence may be their undoing.
“The [Russian] oil storage facility at Varandei on the Pechora Sea was built on a barrier island. Damage to the dunes and beach due to the facility’s construction and use have accelerated natural rates of coastal erosion. The reduction in sea ice, thawing coastal permafrost, rising sea level are projected to exacerbate the existing erosion problem,” the report says.
Artic oil spills can cause problems
As a result, the rusting Russian storage tanks now sit just metres from the raging tides.
As the ice caps melt a litany of new problems will be brought by the oil industry. Oil spills in the arctic “last much longer and are far worse than first suspected”, the committee warns.
These spills will be hampered by political questions, such as those over shipping lane sovereignty, which country will own the new shipping, who will clean up the spills and will the tax payers of the arctic nations be prepared to pay for oil industry spillage in difficult to access areas?
Costs outweigh benefits
As well as the political, there are practical questions.
Oil spills in icy areas are much harder to clean up than those in open seas. A study of the oil spills from the Exxon Valdez in 1989, quoted by the IASC, show that the “oil is like it was two or three weeks after the spill.” These spills will cause “chronic problems that will continue for some species for many years”.
Meanwhile obvious problems associated with broken oil pipelines are becoming readily apparent, even now.
“Structural failures of industrial infrastructure are becoming more common … oil and gas pipelines are breaking, causing accidents and spills that have removed large amounts of land from use because of soil contamination,” the report warns.
So, even if the oil industry can benefit from increased sea borne access, it may well find the benefits are outweighed by the costly collapse of its land facilities.
While a select number of oil businesses may profit, the report makes clear that the environmental catastrophe will not benefit the wider human or natural community.
Instead, arctic global warming will bring about expensive and far reaching damage to the societies ranged along it, something the eight governments who commissioned the report may well have to take on board.