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Arctic oil spill is certain if drilling goes ahead, says top scientist

Arctic Oil Drilling

An oil rig off Greenland’s coast in the Arctic waters. Photograph: Greenpeace


Powered by article titled “Arctic oil spill is certain if drilling goes ahead, says top scientist” was written by Fiona Harvey in London and Shaun Walker in Moscow, for on Tuesday 19th November 2013 11.45 UTC

A serious oil spill in the Arctic is a “dead cert” if drilling goes ahead, with potentially devastating consequences for the pristine region, according to a leading marine scientist who played a key role in analysis of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The warning came as Russia filed court orders this week to have Greenpeace activists and journalists kept in prison for a further three months before their trial over a protest at Arctic oil dirlling.

Concerns about the potentially dire consequences of drilling for oil in the region have intensified as the Russian government and others have begun exploration under the Arctic seas. In such a cold region, any spill would be much more troublesome, because the oil would not naturally disperse as it does in warmer waters, and because of the difficulty of mounting a clean-up operation in hostile weather conditions.

The “Arctic 30” – comprising 28 activists and two journalists – were arrested when Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise vessel was boarded by Russian coastguards in September and are facing lengthy jail terms if they are convicted. They have been kept in harsh conditions in freezing cold jail cells with poor food, and are being moved 800 miles from Murmansk to St Petersburg.

Simon Boxall, an oil spill expert from the University of Southampton, told the Guardian exploring the region was inherently dangerous: “It is inevitable you will get a spill – a dead cert. I would expect to see a major spill in the not too distant future. I would be astonished if you did not see a major spill from this.”

The conditions in the Arctic would vastly compound the problem, he said. “It’s a completely different environment. In temperate climes, oil disperses quickly. Bacteria help [to digest the oil]. In the Arctic, the oil does not break down in this way – it can take decades before it breaks down. Nature will not help us.”

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The surface of the Gulf of Mexico glistens with color as light reflects off the oil sheen at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Photograph: Dave Martin/AP

During those decades, any spilled oil would be a serious hazard to marine life.

No industry is perfect, Boxall said, but the oil industry has behaved poorly in the past. “There are lots of fail-safes on planes, but accidents still happen. At times, this is an irresponsible industry. Corners are cut, money is saved in small ways. Then it can go wrong and end up costing a huge amount of money, like in the Gulf of Mexico.”

He added: “Different countries have different levels of health and safety. Russia does not have an enviable record on this.”

Even without a spill, exploring the region could disrupt the Arctic environment, warned Jonathan Bamber of the University of Bristol. “You get an increase in shipping, and ships release their ballast water which contains species from other areas. So you could get the introduction to the Arctic of entirely foreign species and we don’t know the impact of that. The Arctic ocean is very enclosed, virtually landlocked, so this could have very big consequences and affect the whole food chain.”

Prirazlomnaya Oil Rig in Russia

Arctic map showing location of Prirazlomnaya rig and where Greenpeace boat was seized


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