“It is promising that the UN is so clear in underscoring the urgent conditions of the Arctic’s changing environment,” said Bellona advisor Sigurd Enge. “This is the only logical appoach most especially for Arctic nations and the Artic Council – the value of a clean and cold Arctic region is of far greater value to the world than is the oil, gas and mineral resources it may contain.”
The UNEP announcement comes as a remarkable reproach from a major international organization to oil and gas majors around the world that are pursuing aggressive efforts to tap what the US Geological Survey has estimated to be some 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas resources, and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil.
“What we are seeing is that the melting of ice is prompting a rush for exactly the fossil fuel resources that fueled the melt in the first place,” Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, told reporters on the release of the The UNEP Year Book 2013 on Monday.
“As the UNEP Year Book 2013 points out, the rush to exploit these vast untapped reserves have consequences that must be carefully thought through by countries everywhere, given the global impacts and issues at stake,” Steiner said.
Last September, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest level in the satellite record, which dates back to 1979, and scientists say there could be an ice-free summer by 2030-2040, notes the UNEP in the report it is presenting at a ministerial meeting in Nairobi, Kenya this week.
The melt is largely blamed on rising greenhouse gas emissions, short-lived pollutants such as soot, or black carbon, and variations in atmosphere and ocean currents.
As ice and snow retreats, more shipping routes are opened and access is easier for oil and gas exploration and mining companies. However, increased human activity could threaten the already fragile ecosystems and wildlife, UNEP said.
In something of a plea, Steiner asked that countries think through the consequences of the race for Arctic hydrocarbon resources, as the entire world is affected by emissions arising from the burning of petroleum.
Bellona’s Enge added that, “fossile fuel recovered in the Arctic will only prolong the oil depences of the world, and is therefore not a solution – either to global climate challenges, the global energy challenge, or to maintaining the environment in the Arctic.”
Cutting global greenhouse gas emissions, which are believed to contribute to rising global temperatures, should remain a top priority, UNEP said. But additional action to curb regional emissions of short-lived pollutants such as black carbon should also be considered.
The Arctic Council – made up of core members Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – has a critical role to play in ensuring any resource exploitation is done responsibly, UNEP said.
The issue of soot that is gnawing away at icepack in Arctic areas was the subject of a recent gathering of the Arctic Council, but produced few results as oil-hungry member states – notably the US and Russia – have blocked any meaningful industrial soot reductions.
The biggest offenders
Those companies that are most bridling to drill in areas of melting sea ice – despite the risks, technological difficulties and costs – are Russia’s Rosneft, Norway’s Statoil and U.S.-based Exxon Mobil.
Spokespeople from each of these companies refused to immediately return requests for comment on the UNEPs appeal.
Some countries, such as Russia, have estimated that the Northern Sea Route would be turned into a shipping highway, with a 40-fold increase in shipping by 2020.
Russia’s current plans in this regard consist of operating the Northern Sea Route as something of a toll highway. Russia argues that its Northern coast is the only place where necessary infrastructure can be built. It also argues that cargo convoys must avail themselves of its fleet of seven nuclear icebreakers.