Oil spills onto ice, climate among Arctic risks
OSLO (Reuters) - Companies seeking oil in the Arctic will need better technology to clean up spills onto ice and could new face hazards such as rougher seas caused by climate change, experts said on Friday.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated this week that 22 percent of the world's undiscovered, technically recoverable reserves of oil and gas were in the Arctic, raising environmentalists' worries about possible impact on wildlife.
"The Exxon Valdez showed what a catastrophe can be caused by oil in the Arctic," said Ilan Kelman, a scientist at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. "The environment is remote, harsh and vulnerable."
The Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground off Alaska in 1989, spilling 11 million U.S. gallons of oil off Alaska and killing thousands of birds and marine mammals.
Commercial Arctic oil exploitation began in Canada in the 1920s at Norman Wells but oil companies still lack full technology to handle spills, for instance, if oil seeps into or below ice floating on the sea.
"Responding to major oil spills remains a major challenge in remote, icy environments. This is especially true for spills in waters where ice is present," according to a 2007 report by the Arctic Council, grouping all governments with Arctic territory.
New cleanup technologies "have yet to be fully tested...spill prevention should be the first priority for all petroleum activities," according to the study for the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland.
Governments and oil companies are developing stringent safety standards to minimize risks of spills.
The WWF environmental group urged a moratorium on all oil and gas exploration until there was proper anti-spill technology and an ability to deploy clean-up equipment quickly to remote sites hit by winter darkness.
"We still lack technology to clean up spills in the ice and we can't do it in the dark," said Neil Hamilton, head of the WWF's Arctic Programme. "We need a moratorium until the oil spill response gap is filled."
Chill temperatures mean that any spilt oil breaks down slowly, lingering longer in the environment and posing a threat to creatures such as seabirds or polar bears.
Global warming is set to make the Arctic region more accessible to oil firms as ice recedes. Arctic summer ice shrank in 2007 to a record low since satellite measurements began.
Kelman said that easier access to the Arctic could have unexpected side-effects -- the seas might become rougher if a blanket of sea ice recedes.
"Ice on the sea prevents storms from causing big waves," he said. He said that oil or gas facilities around the Arctic need to be built especially strong since climate change could cause shifts in sea currents, storms and higher waves.
Paul Johnson, principal scientist at the research laboratories of environmental group Greenpeace in Exeter, England, said the world should not look to the Arctic for oil even with prices at almost $130 a barrel.
"We are dealing with ecosystems that may not recover once they are disturbed," he said.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)