Government failing to protect the Arctic

27 July 2013

The Government is failing to grasp the urgency of protecting the Arctic from new oil and gas drilling, according to MPs on Parliament’s green watchdog.

Launching a report scrutinising the Government’s policy on the Arctic, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Joan Walley MP said:

“What happens in the Arctic will affect the UK, impacting our weather systems and biodiversity. Yet this Government is complacently standing by and watching new oil and gas drilling even though companies like Shell cannot prove they can drill safely in such harsh conditions.”

The lack of proven oil spill response techniques and the fact that the world already has more proven oil and gas reserves than can be burnt without exceeding a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees – widely regarded as a dangerous threshold - makes exploring for new reserves in the extreme Arctic environment needlessly risky, according to the report. It challenges the Government to set out how future Arctic oil and gas extraction could be reconciled with its commitment to limit global temperature increases to below 2 degrees.

The Chair Joan Walley MP added:

“The Government has failed to provide a coherent argument to support its view that exploring for oil and gas in the Arctic is compatible with avoiding dangerous climate destabilisation.”

Questions raised by US regulators following the Kulluk incident in 2012 - when one of Shell’s rigs ran aground – reinforces the case for a moratorium on new drilling in the Committee’s view. The US Department of the Interior has said that Shell entered the drilling season not fully prepared in terms of developing and testing certain critical systems.  This case shows that oil companies and regulators are not yet in a position to demonstrate that oil and gas activities can be undertaken safely in the Arctic. The Committee calls on the UK Government to reconsider whether a moratorium is needed in light of the environmental safety issues being examined by the US authorities.

Joan Walley MP added:

“The problems Shell has suffered over the last year reinforce the case for a moratorium on Arctic drilling and the introduction of a much higher, preferably unlimited, financial liability regime to cover any drilling that eventually takes place in this pristine wilderness.”

Following the setbacks Shell's Arctic drilling programme suffered in 2012, it has announced a pause for the 2013 season. Nevertheless, there remain important questions about Shell's 2012 operations, which we will put to the company once continuing US regulatory investigations are complete.

The Chair Joan Walley MP concluded:

“David Cameron should visit the Arctic again to see the huge changes that have taken place since he was last there and renew his commitment to protecting the region.”


“The rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice should be a wake-up call for his Government to tackle climate change, not pave the way for a corporate carve up of the region’s resources.”


Arctic melting:

The summer extent of ice in the Arctic had been retreating year on year since the 1950s at a rate of 4% per decade, but since the early 2000s this rate had increased to 10-12%.

The six lowest September ice extents have occurred in the last six years, including September 2012 which was the lowest ice extent on record.

The latest satellite measurements of ice extent from the US National Snow and Ice data Centre indicate that the 2013 summer minimum ice extent could be similar to 2012's. 

Taking account of that new data, the Met Office continues to forecast ice-free summers in the Arctic by 2025-2030.

Further information

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