May 4, 2010 / 5:45 PM / 9 years ago

WWF sees "severe risk" in Arctic oil exploration

PARIS (Reuters) - The World Wildlife Fund is urging governments in the Arctic to suspend all oil exploration due to “severe risks” of spills or blowouts until a comprehensive plan to deal with disasters is in place, a senior official said.

Bill Eichbaum, a WWF vice-president, said extreme weather, icy conditions, lack of regulation and the absence of a coordinated plan of action between nations could lead to a crisis even worse than in the Gulf of Mexico.

“What we’re seeing in the Arctic is the beginning of a major new industrial activity with variable standards from country to country and the potential for an accident,” he told Reuters Television at the Global Oceans Conference in Paris.

BP Plc is struggling to stop oil gushing unchecked from a ruptured undersea well in Louisiana at an estimated rate of 5,000 barrels a day, threatening shipping, wildlife, beaches and one of the most fertile U.S. fishing grounds.

Eichbaum, who is vice-president of the WWF’s Arctic policy, said the events in the Gulf of Mexico had made it even more important to suspend the licenses in the Arctic.

“One thinks exploration is simple, but you don’t know what those pressures are ... you can have a guess, but when you go in it’s unknown,” he said. “We think the risk is so severe, there should be a stop to further exploration.”

Canada, Russia, Norway, the United States and Denmark, the only nations with Arctic coastlines, are racing to file territorial claims over oil, gas and precious metal reserves that could become more accessible as the Arctic ice cap shrinks.

“This (Gulf) accident was in a place where every resource was available to respond, but that’s not the case in the Arctic,” said Eichbaum. “The conditions there are severe and we in the environmental community are concerned that oil and gas exploration not be allowed there until there is an understanding of how to respond.”

Oil majors such as BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron are investing millions of dollars to lease tracts of Canada’s Beaufort Sea, north of the Northwest Territories.

In the United States, Royal Dutch Shell spent $2.1 billion on Chukchi Sea leases in 2008, and ConocoPhillips, the third-largest U.S. oil company, paid $506 million for its Chukchi leases the same year.

U.S. President Barack Obama gave the nod in March for companies with licenses awarded under the previous Bush administration to pursue exploration in the Arctic, although it stopped new licenses until more scientific research is done.

Editing by Diana Abdallah

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