Eco-risks loom as arctic oil activity grows
OSLO (Reuters) - Exploitation of the Arctic's huge oil and gas wealth poses a growing danger to an icy wilderness that can recover only slowly from heavy oil spills, a report by the eight-nation Arctic Council said on Monday.
"Oil spills can kill large numbers of animals by covering them in oil, and create long-term contamination that can affect populations and ecosystems for decades," an overview report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), an Arctic Council body, said.
According to some estimates, as much as a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas may lie in the Arctic,.
"With rising global demand, oil and gas activity in the region is expected to increase," the report said.
The Arctic already produces about a tenth of the world's crude oil and a quarter of its gas, with about 80 percent of the oil and 99 percent of the region's gas coming from Russia, the report said.
"The Arctic is generally considered to be vulnerable to oil spills due to slow recovery of cold, highly seasonal ecosystems, and the difficulty of clean up in remote, cold regions, especially in waters where sea ice is present," it said.
Around 100 scientists have been working on the report "Arctic Oil and Gas 2007" since 2002.
The report was delayed until this year from 2007, and sources familiar with the process said that the United States and Sweden had blocked publication of policy recommendations.
The difficulty stemmed partly from the identification of vulnerable areas in the Arctic, an official said. The report mentioned the Barents Sea and Bering Sea as two such areas.
The Arctic Council's member states are Canada, Denmark, -- including Greenland and the Faroe Islands -- Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
AMAP was established in 1991 to implement parts of an Arctic environmental protection strategy, to provide information on risks to the environment and to advise governments on preventive and remedial actions to deal with them.
"While routine oil and gas activities have produced relatively little hydrocarbon contamination, accidents such as oil spills are a different story," the AMAP report said.
The report noted some big spills on land, including one caused by a ruptured pipeline in 1994 in Russia's Komi Republic, but it said: "To date there have been no large oil spills in the Arctic marine environment from oil and gas activities."
It said, however, that the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill off southern Alaska and spills in the North Sea -- neither of which are in the Arctic proper -- "give some indication of the likely impacts should such a spill occur."
Natural seepage is a bigger source of oil contamination into the Arctic environment than human sources, the report said. "Routine oil and gas operations currently contribute a very small fraction of the total input," it said.
Where spillages occur, though, their local intensity means they inflict greater damage.
(Reporting by John Acher, editing by Ralph Boulton)