Wetlands International strongly welcomes the suspension by President Obama of oil drilling in the offshore USA territories in the Arctic. The period of suspension is needed for a proper analysis and discussion about the risks of offshore drilling.
The Louisiana case demonstrates how stringent rules and protocols on paper do not necessarily prevent a major environmental disaster in practice. Top level technology and the best technical minds are still struggling to deal with this issue while the oil spreads across the coastal and marine waters of the gulf affecting human livelihoods, fisheries, tourism, shallow and deep water ecosystems, colonies of waterbirds, turtles and other marine life.
Drilling in the Arctic: similar risks, higher impacts
The risks and consequences for a similar disaster due to offshore oil drilling and sea transport may be even higher in the Arctic. The extreme cold, occurrence of sea ice and deep water would add to the hazards. The environmental impact of a comparable an oil spill would be surely more devastating due to the slow recovery rate of the Arctic ecosystems. The low temperatures and content of oxygen in Arctic marine waters ends in extremely low bacterial activity and this works against the “natural” decomposition of oil products. It is vital therefore to wait for the outcomes of the planned investigations to reassess these risks and the security of current practices in similar drilling operations.
Vulnerable nature under pressure
The vulnerable nature of the Arctic offshore areas is of global importance. Large quantities of commercially important fish species like Cod, Salmon, Whitefishes and Crab are caught in the Arctic area. Millions of migratory waterbirds depend on the coastal zones as breeding and staging areas. Globally threatened species like Polar Bear, Walrus and various whale species could be wiped out by with major additional disturbances. Recently performed circumpolar assessments undertaken within Arctic Council activities suggests that level of impacts and disturbances in the Arctic marine ecosystem is already close to critical due to chemical and biological pollution, over fishing, changes in natural water circulation, amongst others. Any additional impact could be the last straw.
What needs to be done
Risks of this new activity in the Arctic and the consequences if a major oil spill happens are often not fully recognised. Wetlands International calls for a proper assessment of the risks of oil spills to ecosystems and livelihoods linked with planned drilling operations and associated developments. A dialogue involving all key stakeholders is needed concerning how to bring risks and impacts close to zero. The suspension period and a sufficient period following the outcome of the Gulf of Mexico enquiry should be used for these purposes.
A global problem
The Louisiana disaster shows the permanent threat of oil winning on very precious natural areas world wide: accidents can never be fully prevented, and it is therefore just a matter of time before a new one takes place. In this light, it is crucial to review current emerging interests of extracting oil in areas rich of wetlands like the Arctic, - one of the world’s most vulnerable areas - the West African coast or the Sudd in Sudan, one of the largest natural wetlands in Africa, where oil winning is hardly regulated.. One approach to reduce the potentially devastating risks of oil pollution is to establish no-go zones for particularly precious or vulnerable sites and to manage safe shipping routes. In doing so, strict application of the precautionary principle is required to avoid unacceptable risks.
Wetlands International and the Arctic
Wetlands International has a history of working in the Arctic. We investigate the role of the area for migratory waterbird species and work intensively on the peatswamps in the area; investigating their biodiversity, carbon content and hydrology. Currently, Wetlands International offers it’s technical expertise and advises Shell to develop a sufficient knowledge-base and guidelines for working in the Arctic.
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