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

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Case study

The wetlands in the Arctic region are rich in biodiversity, and form one of the richest waterbird habitats and nesting areas in the world. They also provide an important source of income to both local and international communities. These wetlands are extremely fragile and recovery from disturbance is slow. We worked with companies to better understand the functions of Arctic wetlands, and to minimise the impacts of the oil and gas sector on onshore and coastal wetlands.

The Arctic region  is one of the world’s largest and most pristine areas. Most Arctic land consists of permafrost peat swamps; marshes that are only 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 recognise the value of these wetlands. And, as a consequence, the conservation of these values is not planned for when areas are being developed in the Arctic.

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

Challenges

The Arctic also holds large and only partly-discovered reserves of oil and gas. With the recent Climate Agreements in Paris fossil energy will need to play a greatly reduced role in the global energy portfolio. For some Arctic countries, however, over the next few decades, the Arctic is still planned to  become an area of strategic interest for many stakeholders pursuing minerals and hydrocarbons for energy security. This means it will also become an area of interest for 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. We are very concerned by the rush for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The nature and scale of the risks have not been adequately assessed. For our detailed views on gas and oil extraction in the Arctic, see our Arctic position brief.

Under the overall partnership between Shell and Wetlands International (2008-2017), we initiated a programme for the Arctic to promote and implement a more responsible approach for activities in the region. This approach should apply to all activities in the region, including those from all oil and gas companies.

Achievements

  • We carried out a key study of Arctic wetlands and the ecosystem services they provide, as input for avoiding and mitigating impacts from oil and gas projects and other developments. In this manner we hope to protect or limit the impacts on important natural functions, such as water flows and feeding grounds for many species of animals.
  • 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 people 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 where there was less impact on wetland values.
  • Currently we are identifying potential critical habitats and the vulnerability of coastal wetlands for a more sustainable management of risks and impacts and better conservation of high biodiversity value areas in the Arctic.

Partners:

Arctic Council
Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North
Arctic Peoples Alert
Shell