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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

UK MPs on EAC slam Cameron for failing to protect Arctic from oil spill risk

by James Murray, Business Green, January 15, 2013

The Environment Audit Committee (EAC) has responded angrily after the government today rejected its recommendation for a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic. The EAC recommended last September that drilling in Arctic waters should be subject to an immediate ban, until more robust measures are put in place to address spill risks. But the government has rejected the central recommendation calling for a moratorium, arguing that existing efforts to protect the Arctic while allowing continued oil and gas exploration are "more likely to be effective." 

It also rejected the EAC's calls for more demanding liability rules for firms drilling in the Arctic oceans, arguing that limits on financial liabilities should be set by the countries in whose national jurisdictions the activities are taking place, and insisted there was no inconsistency between opening up the Arctic to fossil fuel exploration and continuing to try and limit global temperature rises to 2 ºC. 

A Foreign Office spokesman said the government will be drawing up a "comprehensive 2013 Arctic policy framework" and revealed it was keen to work with Arctic states to develop a "new way of regulating the conservation of marine biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction". But while the government admitted that it was "acutely aware of the potential environmental impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic and recognises the risks of drilling for hydrocarbons," it does not see the development of a new regulatory regime for the region as a prerequisite for continued drilling in the Arctic. 

In notably pointed comments, EAC chair Joan Walley accused the government of failing to take a lead in ensuring adequate protections are put in place for the Arctic wilderness. 

"A few years ago the Prime Minister rode with huskies in the Arctic to demonstrate his commitment on environmental issues, but now he is being asked to protect that pristine wilderness for real he has refused to take a lead on the issue," she said. 

"Last summer's record Arctic sea ice melt should be seen as a wake-up call to governments to work together to protect this region, not a starting gun on a race to exploit its resources. The UK should take a lead in pushing for a protected area in the Arctic – one of the last undeveloped wilderness areas on Earth." 

She also highlighted this month's grounding of Shell's Kulluk rig off the coast of Alaska as further evidence of the risks drilling in Arctic waters brings, adding that the EAC would be calling back Shell executives to give evidence on the incident. 

Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds welcomed the report as "a well-timed and constructive contribution to the Arctic debate." 

"The Arctic is changing at a rapid rate with repercussions for the global environment," he said in a statement. 

"The UK is not an Arctic State but we do have strong environmental, economic, scientific and political interests there. Our response to the committee's report sets out how we will work with our international partners to secure a peaceful, protected and well-governed Arctic. 

"It also sets out how we want to work with interested parties both in the UK and internationally to ensure our policy keeps up with the changes we are seeing." 

The government's response came on the same day the Guardian reported it had seen leaked EU documents that show the UK is attempting to block rules that could prevent drilling in areas close to fragile habitats. The UK is reportedly calling for the clause to be axed, because "oil spills may be effectively dispersed by wind and wave action and this is in itself one form of effective response."

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