The Arctic is one of most pristine and unique regions of our planet, but it is now in crisis from two serious threats -- climate change and industrialization. As sea ice retreats, the Arctic has become the "wild wild north" -- a last frontier for a failed development paradigm that has ravaged much of the rest of the biosphere. And while governments and industry say they will develop the Arctic "responsibly," their actions so far suggest otherwise.
On climate change, things have quickly gone from bad to worse. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of other regions of our planet. Just last month, sea ice extent across the Arctic basin was the lowest ever recorded for the month, and CO2 levels in the area were measured at 400 parts per million -- the highest anywhere for hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists say that to stabilize climate, atmospheric CO2 concentrations need to be below 350 ppm. Climate models project that, at this rate, the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free in summer within decades, and this catastrophic loss of sea ice will accelerate warming, release more methane (a potent greenhouse gas), alter the deep ocean current in the Atlantic, and significantly affect global climate. All sea ice dependent species are at risk, including polar bears, whales, walrus, ice seals, fish, and birds. In summer, walruses crowd the shores of Arctic Alaska and Russia, waiting for sea ice from which they can feed over offshore areas. Most polar bear populations are in decline. Northern seas are becoming acidic due to absorption of CO2 (forming carbonic acid), threatening the marine food web. Some coastal villages in Alaska, such as Newtok, Shishmaref, and Kivalina, are either in the process of moving to higher ground, or planning to do such, at a cost (to the U.S. taxpayer) of between $100 million to $200 million each -- as much as $2 million per household. But regardless of where these villages move, their subsistence cultures, dependent largely upon the sea ice ecosystem, are in serious jeopardy due to climate change. Yet, governments remain politically paralyzed in efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
And as the sea ice recedes, an Arctic offshore oil rush is in full swing. Most of the world's easily accessible oil has already been produced and burned, so oil companies are now moving offshore into the last hydrocarbon frontiers, including the Arctic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil, and 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, about 84 percent of which are offshore. Shell currently has two drilling rigs in route to Arctic Alaska to drill exploratory offshore wells this summer, and other companies are drilling in Arctic waters of Greenland, Canada, Russia, and Norway. The new five-year offshore drilling plan just issued by the U.S. government opens several additional offshore areas to leasing in the U.S. Arctic. Yet despite industry and government assurances to the contrary, oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean cannot be done without significant risk and impact. There will be chronic degradation, and there will be spills. There is simply no failsafe way to prevent or respond to blowouts and other spills, and the damage caused would be catastrophic. But government and industry seem willing to roll the dice with Arctic oil, and hope for the best. To date, government regulations and spill liability regimes for Arctic oil spills are woefully inadequate, and do not motivate companies to operate as safely as possible.
With its announcement last month that it has suspended plans to drill its Liberty project off Alaska's Arctic coast, BP seems to understand the extreme risk in Arctic offshore drilling. When it took a hard look at its offshore prospects after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP deemed the measures needed to safely drill the Liberty field too costly, and it rightly suspended the project as currently designed. Perhaps oil companies can learn from their mistakes after all.*
But above all, the stunning irony of Arctic petroleum development is that the billions of tons of carbon produced will ultimately wind up in the global atmosphere, further accelerating the climatic warming that is so disastrous to the region.
Shipping lanes along the Northwest Passage across Canada and Northern Sea Route across Russia are more ice-free each summer, opening the way for more merchant shipping including oil tankers and cargo ships. Last year, over 400 ships transited the Bering Strait between the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. And while Arctic shipping increases each year, the region still has no comprehensive vessel tracking system, routing agreements, areas-to-be-avoided, escort and rescue tugs, or adequate polar shipping regulations. The U.S. Coast Guard is worried, and it should be.
With the bombastic planting of the Russia flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007, the territorial disputes in the Arctic were spotlighted for the world. Arctic coastal nations are asserting extended continental shelf claims, beyond 200 miles from shore, under the U.N. Law of the Sea, and some such claims may become contentious. Russia and Norway are said to be enhancing their military capabilities in the region. Arctic governance today is an absolute mess, with the eight coastal nations (including the U.S.) arguing their own competing parochial interests within their own dysfunctional and hyper-political Arctic Council, with each nation seemingly in a panic to develop resources as fast as possible. Each Arctic nation has recently issued its own Arctic Policy, all of which seemingly more focused on short-term commercial development than long-term environmental protection and sustainability.
Given this precarious situation, it is time to develop a new approach to Arctic governance that protects this global treasure for future generations.
First, as the Arctic is a global resource, it should not be left to the parochial whims of just the coastal nations of the region. We desperately need a new governance structure that will sustain the region over the long-term. The U.N should convene a new, more inclusive Arctic Council, comprised of the eight Arctic coastal states and non-Arctic nations with interest in the region - the U.K., Germany, China, Japan, Korea, and others. Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic should have an equal seat -- not just an "observer" seat -- in the Council. The U.N. Arctic Council should set as its goal to secure the sustainability and integrity of the Arctic for all humankind. It should negotiate an Arctic Treaty similar to that governing the Antarctic, and establish a high Arctic Sanctuary protected from industrial exploitation, as proposed recently by Greenpeace at the Rio+20 Earth Summit. In addition, Arctic nations should identify areas within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that are important to global biodiversity, and agree to conserve such areas as a contribution to the Arctic Sanctuary. The Canadian and Greenland high Arctic areas are essential candidates for such protection, as this area is projected to be the last refuge for sea ice and polar bears by mid-century.
Governments need to dramatically improve their oversight and control of all industrial activities in the Arctic, particularly shipping, oil and gas drilling, mining, and fisheries. And governments must strengthen financial liability regimes for environmental damage in the Arctic. The oil industry should establish an Arctic Offshore Petroleum Institute (AOPI), modeled on the successful Institute for Nuclear Power Operations in the U.S. The AOPI should be a technical industry non-profit organization, ensuring the highest level of safety for all offshore oil industry activities in the Arctic. As well, each Arctic nation should establish an Arctic Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, to give coastal residents a direct say in the industrial activities that affect their lives.
And finally, regardless of how well we manage the Arctic, none of this will make much difference unless the world reduces global carbon emissions by some 80% over the next decade. We know exactly how to do this -- end fossil fuel subsidies, tax carbon (as Australia has recently done), apply these new revenues to energy conservation and low-carbon alternative energy sources, and regulate carbon emissions. And every carbon atom produced from the Arctic needs to be offset elsewhere. History will surely judge us harshly if we fail to act on this clear threat now.
Global society has a historic choice to make with the Arctic. Do we continue our industrial expansion into one of the last wild and extreme areas of the world, extract and use the billions of tons of fossil carbon energy here, further degrading the environment of the region and world, and further delaying our necessary transition to a sustainable energy economy? Or, do we choose another, kinder and sustainable future for this magnificent place? Our choice here will tell us a lot about who we are, our selfless vs. selfish nature, and what our long-term future will be. Let's hope we choose wisely.
*A previous version of this post stated in this section that BP had "abandoned the project." It has since been updated to clarify BP's position.