Fears in Arctic over rigged energy choices

Icebergs in fjord Image copyright bbc
Image caption The pristine waters off Greenland are targets for a new oil and gas drive

There's something of a new sunrise in the Arctic this year.

And I'm not just talking about the spectacularly beautiful event that begins every spring day.

The Arctic Sunrise is a ship belonging to Greenpeace, which has done battle in many corners of the world against most things that the organisation detests.

Now, it is steaming close to the Greenland coast, engaged in opposition to a relatively new issue: deepwater drilling for oil and gas in these remote, chilled waters.

Confrontations here are likely to be a regular feature in the coming months; this is a major new frontier.

Together with its sister ship Esperanza, the Arctic Sunrise has just made contact with the Leiv Eiriksson, a rig that will shortly begin its scheduled exploration programme for the summer.

The rig is being escorted by a 120-metre Danish warship.

As a quasi-colonial power, Denmark is responsible still for policing Greenlandic waters, and was presumably called up because Greenpeace activists have already boarded exploration rigs once this year, and wouldn't have ventured into the Arctic unless they had something more planned.

Image copyright Other

According to the US Geological Survey, almost a quarter of the world's undiscovered but potentially exploitable oil and gas reserves may lie beneath the Arctic seabed.

And as summer ice cover shrinks, opportunities to exploit these fields are opening up.

Greenpeace - and other environmental groups - are calling for a halt to these projects, essentially for two reasons.

Firstly, last year's Gulf of Mexico disaster illustrated just how badly wrong things can go on a deepwater rig - and the social and environmental costs will be counted for many years to come.

Basic science tells you that in colder water, oil products are going to remain intact for much longer before being broken down. Rescue and clean-up operations will be more difficult in the roiling Arctic than in the relative calm of the gulf.

The second reason is that in an era when virtually all governments say they're committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, how is it sensible to be investing money in finding new stocks of fossil fuels to exploit?

The most important governments in the new Arctic oil race - Canada, Russia and the US - are, co-incidentally or otherwise, among the least keen to see a new global treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

As Wikileaks revealed earlier this month, far from trying to restrain exploration, leaders have actively been discussing how to "carve up" the region's resources between them.

Greenland raises a particular issue, with its recent successful bid for greater independence from Denmark being partially driven by the huge revenues oil and gas exploitation could bring.

Greenpeace has been doing a little revealing, too.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Actions against Arctic rigs are set to be a regular occurrence in the coming months

It's publishing UK government documents, obtained via Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, that indicate a level of alarm about the damage that could result from a spill.

"It is difficult to get assistance in case of pollution problems in such areas, and near impossible to make good damage caused," reads a message sent from one official to another - their identities redacted.

The UK doesn't have any territorial claims north of the Arctic Circle; but UK-based companies such as Cairn Energy, which is contracted to do the Greenland exploration this summer, are active players.

"The rapid pace of both global warming and extraction technological advance means that the world's last frontier for petroleum may be open for exploration much sooner than expected just a few years ahead," another of the internal UK documents notes.

The writer ponders: "Can the UK risk losing business opportunities for the sake of environmental protection?"

The memo implies that different arms of the UK government are not having the most constructive of conversations with each other.

Its writer asks: "If in the Arctic High North we do not seek the resources to satisfy growing global energy demand, it is unclear where else these resources might be found."

Yet the UK's official line on this is that the resources can and should be found in the wind, in waves and tides, in sunlight, and the power of the atom.

Which of those assessments is the more honest is a question to mull.

Whatever the concerns, Arctic oil and gas exploration looks set for a big expansion.

Canada is forging ahead; so are Russia and Norway. Greenland clearly wants to join the race, while the US is likely to grant new exploration rights once operators have satisfied authorities that they have learned lessons from the gulf leak.

Can environmental groups do enough to stop it - especially when governments appear to have decided already that the environmental risks are worth taking in return for a continuing supply of black gold?