EU energy chief backs Arctic drilling

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Despite environmentalists’ warnings against drilling for oil and gas in such a fragile ecosystem, EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said guaranteeing Europe’s energy security justified further exploration of the North Pole.

“You even need to go into hostile environments […] You can’t say ‘this is a sanctuary’ because it will not work […] Otherwise, where will we get energy from?,” he said, speaking at a debate organised by Friends of Europe on Friday (19 September). 

The commissioner nevertheless stressed the need to take “all environmental precautions”. “You need clear-cut rules, clear environmental impact assessments and very responsible implementation,” he said. 

“I believe the Commission should help the countries that actually have these resources under their jurisdiction to develop the technologies or to use the technologies in an appropriate way,” he added, saying the Commission should in no way fight for a ban on the use of Arctic resources.

But WWF Director Stephan Singer insisted that no amount of environmental and safety legislation would ever be sufficient to prevent oil companies’ drilling activities from endangering the whole Arctic ecosystem. 

He accused governments and energy companies of creating a “perverse situation” by choosing to drill “a very fragile ecosystem that is already basically dying” rather than working on reducing dependency on “inefficient oil and gas” and investing more in renewable energies. 

“We need to get rid of our oil dependency overall […] We cannot wait until the last drop,” he stressed. 

Piebalgs however agreed with Norwegian oil and gas firm Statoil, which has already invested hugely in searching the Arctic coastline for new reserves, that “any realistic energy strategy in the future will have to rely on oil and gas”. According to Statoil CEO Helge Lund, a “massive exploration effort” is required in the Arctic. “Having options is always a good thing,” he stressed, highlighting the EU’s major dependency on Russian and Middle Eastern energy supplies. 

But Piebalgs nevertheless conceded that the Arctic “will not provide the magical solution we are looking for” in terms of global energy security and will “hardly” reduce the EU’s dependency on Russian energy “looking at the borderlines Russia has with the Arctic”. 

Delimitation issues 

Piebalgs further said that he was “not at ease with developments in the Arctic,” referring to increasingly conflicting ownership claims following Russia’s flag-planting at the North Pole last summer. “Countries that are bordering the Arctic should be extremely serious about not making conflictual announcements, because whatever solution is found, it should be between all the countries bordering it.” 

The five states bordering the Arctic – Russia, Canada, the USA, Norway and Denmark – have promised to resolve the issue at the United Nations, and have until May 2009 to register their positions. A number of non-governmental organisations and academics have been calling for an Arctic Treaty similar to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, which establishes the lack of national sovereignty over the continent so as to promote peace and scientific research. 

But Piebalgs believes the solution should rest on existing international law. “We have rules. Perhaps not perfect. But I think the Convention on the Law of the Sea should be applied. I know that it does not give answers to all the questions but it could be used […] It would be very dangerous to reopen the rules because the countries that have access now to these territorial waters would say it is really unfair. They would say: ‘Now guys, you have slept for 50 years and now have you discovered oil, you want to change the rules’’ So I believe we should stick to existing legislation.” 

On 9 September 2008, EU Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Commissioner Joe Borg announced that Brussels was preparing proposals to safeguard the Arctic, a region on the front line of global warming and increasingly at the centre of sovereignty conflicts (EURACTIV 11/09/08). 

The move comes as climate change is causing Arctic ice to melt, endangering many species of the region's flora and fauna, but, at the same time, making the resource-rich area more navigable and opening up new trading possibilities. 

As formerly frozen territories become accessible, the continent's suspected large oil and gas reserves have triggered an Arctic 'rush' amid an increasing number of sovereignty disputes. 

No country owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic surrounding it. The surrounding Arctic states of the USA, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (Greenland) have a 200 nautical mile economic zone around their coasts. 

In August 2007, a Russian icebreaker reached the North Pole and a Russian mini-submarine planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed. The move was widely seen as a claim by Russia to the North Pole seabed and its resources. 

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