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UK government unlikely to rethink “complacent” Arctic policies

Foreign Office maintains its views on Arctic drilling despite criticism that it is “needlessly risky”

By Sophie Yeo

MPs’ accusations of governmental “complacency” over the Arctic have not prompted any rethink of the upcoming policy framework, according to the Foreign Office.

In the latest of a series of exchanges discussing UK policy towards Arctic drilling, the Environmental Audit Committee accused the government of complacency in its policies towards the extraction of oil and gas in the region, which are not consistent with its goals of limiting global warming to 2C.

But a Foreign Office spokeswoman has told RTCC it stands by its initial response that drilling in the Arctic is necessary to meet future energy demand, and does not intend to change its policy in the framework that is expected at the end of the summer.

The government’s response to last year’s Protecting the Arctic report, which recommended a moratorium on Arctic drilling, was “disappointing” and “failed to grasp the urgency of action needed” if the UK is going to achieve its goal of staying beneath 2C of global warming, said the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

In the government’s response to their report, it rejected recommendations of a moratorium, but promised to release a new framework this summer, which would clarify and update its policy concerning the Arctic.

Moratorium

In a new report released on Saturday, the EAC reasserted that Arctic drilling is “needlessly risky” due to the lack of a proven oil spill response technique and the fact that the world already has more oil and gas reserves than can be safely burnt, if warming is going to stay beneath the 2C threshold.

It renews its calls for a moratorium and for an unlimited financial liability scheme covering drilling in the area.

According to Joan Walley MP, who chairs the EAC, “The Government has failed to provide a coherent argument to support its view that exploring for oil and gas in the Arctic is compatible with avoiding dangerous climate destabilisation.

“The rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice should be a wake-up call for his Government to tackle climate change, not pave the way for a corporate carve up of the region’s resources.”

In the EAC’s report, however, it said it looked forward to the government releasing its new Arctic Policy Framework.

It said, “Whilst this falls short of the strategy that we previously called for, it is an important first step and we urge the Government to take account in that document of the issues that we raise in this and our previous report.”

Unchanging policy

According to the Foreign Office (FCO), however, there is currently no intention to rethink the Arctic Policy Framework, due at the end of the summer, in light of the renewed criticisms from the EAC.

Jane Rumble, head of the Polar Regions Department at the FCO, said that no significant changes were expected to feature in the new Arctic Policy Framework.

She told RTCC that the points made by the EAC “will be addressed in the document itself, but the government hasn’t substantially changed its policy from that which it presented to the committee.”

An FCO spokesperson said: “Where that oil comes from, be it the Arctic, Africa or anywhere else, is a commercial decision.

“The UK engages constructively with all Arctic States.  However, the Government does not consider it appropriate for the UK to tell other States which resources they can and cannot extract from their own sovereign territory.”

The the US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic could be home to 30% of the planet’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13% of its undiscovered oil.

UK leverage

The FCO view that the government is effectively powerless to prevent exploitation is not shared by campaign groups.

Ruth Davis, Chief Policy Advisor at Greenpeace UK, says that while the UK cannot impose a legal moratorium on drilling in the Arctic, there are other ways in which it could advocate a new policy more consistent with its 2C goal, including supporting a drilling delay within the European Union.

“It’s true that the UK cannot ‘impose’ a moratorium on Arctic states. But they could, for example, decide they were going to advocate for it as an observer on the Arctic Council, and in their bilateral discussions with Arctic states,” she told RTCC.

“They could also advocate for the European Union to support a moratorium, particularly at a moment when the EU are revising their own Arctic policy.

“This would give the UK an opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with European Arctic states such as Sweden and Finland around the risks of Arctic oil drilling; these states in turn are in a position to influence debates on these matters that take place within the Arctic Council.

“The UK Government could also legitimately engage with UK companies about the nature and the scale of the risks of Arctic drilling, and explore how companies such as Shell are planning to address those risks.”

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