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Arctic wetlands: reducing the impact of the oil and gas sector

Wetlands are the dominant ecosystem in the onshore Arctic and provide valuable services to biodiversity and communities, both local and well beyond. Wetlands in the Arctic region are fragile and recovery from disturbance is slow. The impact of a new road in the permafrost marshes may impact a much wider area for decades to come. What's more: Arctic wetlands are not well defined or understood. Wetlands International works with partners such as Shell to better understand the functions and sensitivities of Arctic wetlands, in order to improve decision-making to minimise the impacts of the oil and gas sector on onshore and coastal wetlands.

Action Description:


The Arctic region (see information about Arctic wetlands) is one of the world’s largest and most pristine areas. Most Arctic land consists of permafrost peat swamps; marshes that only are accessible in the winter when the wet soil is frozen. Few people live in these areas; and productivity from using the lands is generally low. As a result, many countries around the polar circle do not specifically value these wetlands.












These regions however are critical for nature; many migratory species such as geese and waders depend on the area for breeding in the summer. The vast peat swamps are also essential for maintaing the global climate, containing literally billions of tonnes of organic carbon, many times more than the annual global fossil fuel emissions. 

The Arctic holds large and only partly-discovered reserves of oil and gas. Over the next few decades, the Arctic will become an area of strategic interest for many stakeholders pursuing minerals and hydrocarbons for energy security, as well as those concerned by global environmental challenges.

The Arctic environment is very fragile. Due to low temperatures and ice, recovery from even a small oil spill will take longer than in other environments. 

Our views

As long as internationally agreed standards for oil and gas operations and risks do not exist, and adequate management of these risks is not in place, we do not support exploration and production in the Arctic. We further support an immediate moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the most sensitive areas of the Arctic, including all categories of protected areas and all areas of international importance such as World Heritage Sites, Ramsar Sites and Key Biodiversity Areas.

We view oil and gas exploration and production in the Arctic as interventions that bring significant risks to the environment, ecosystem services and livelihoods. These risks have not been adequately quantified and that no internationally agreed standards have been set against which these risks are managed.

We call for the strongest possible safeguards and emergency response mechanisms. The current research on Arctic ecosystems and their natural functions is inadequate for effective land use planning, wetlands conservation and wise use, and ensuring the most important values are not jeopardised. As a science-based organisation with expertise on wetlands, we contribute to the development of this knowledge and aim for better standards to protect wetlands for both people and nature.

We recognize that the decision to license oil and gas operations is made by the governments of Arctic countries and that these developments are taking place. Under these circumstances, in order to reduce negative impacts as much as possible and to make oil and gas development as sustainable as possible in the Arctic, we collaborate directly with industry, including through a strategic partnership with Shell, with the aim of achieving sector-wide improvements. It is clear that better practices and standards are needed in order to minimise impacts on the Arctic environment and the traditional lifestyles of indigenous people.

See our Arctic position brief for more details on our views.

Our activities

We aim for higher standards to protect wetlands for both people and nature. For achieving this, we see opportunities to work with the oil and gas sector.

Under the overall partnership between Shell and Wetlands International, we have initiated a programme for the Arctic to promote and implement a more responsible approach for activities in the region. The ambition is to develop standards that do not just apply to Shell, but to all activities in the region, including those from other oil and gas companies. 

The programme is focused on introducing best practices to avoid and mitigate impacts on wetlands and to introduce compensation and restoration standards and technologies. At this moment, the focus is on the inland Arctic wetlands such as permafrost marshes.

Seeking support for ambitious standards

Together with Shell, we call for attention within the oil and gas sector through the global oil and gas industry association for environmental and social issues (IPIECA) as well as in public bodies such as governments meeting at the Arctic Council and Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. We work towards encouraging governments and companies to agree on and apply higher standards for their operations in the Arctic.

What we achieved

  • Working alongside experts, we carried out a key study of Arctic wetlands and the ecosystem services they provide. This provides guidance to better plan and design oil projects in order to protect or limit the impacts on important natural functions, such as water flows and feeding grounds for many species of animals. This study will be uploaded here as soon as available.
  • We reduced the impacts of oil and gas development in the Upper Dvuobje Ramsar site in Western Siberia (Russia). In collaboration with other NGOs, we mapped ecosystems and determined the most valuable and vulnerable wetlands to avoid in one of the richest waterbird habitats and nesting areas in the world.
  • We developed a strategy to protect the environment and indigenous peoples affected by oil production activities planned for the Russian regional nature park “Numto,” located in Western Siberia. In 2010, our influence resulted in the relocation of two planned onshore oil rigs to locations that better protect peatlands.

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