Arctic nations’ plans to start co-operating over oil spills are vague and fail to define companies’ liability for any accidents in an icy region opening up due to global warming, environmentalists said on Monday.
A 21-page document by the eight-nation Arctic Council, seen by Reuters and due to be approved in May, says countries in the region "shall maintain a national system for responding promptly and effectively to oil pollution incidents".
It does not say what that means in terms of staff, ships, clean-up equipment or corporate liability in a remote region that the US Geological Survey estimates has 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered gas.
The countries have drafted the document as companies including Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, Lukoil and Statoil are looking north for oil despite high costs and risks. Shell’s Kulluk oil rig ran aground in Alaska on 31 December in near hurricane conditions.
"The document doesn’t get to grips with the risks of a spill in a meaningful way," said Ruth Davis of Greenpeace, which passed the document to Reuters. Officials confirmed the text was genuine.
Greenpeace, which wants the Arctic to be off-limits to drilling, said it was "so vaguely written as to have very little practical value in increasing the level of preparedness".
"We should be far beyond this rudimentary document," echoed Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant and former professor at the University of Alaska often critical of the oil industry. He said the Council should put more stress on preventing spills.
The Arctic Council - comprising the US, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark including Greenland - sees co-operation as big progress for the region, where sea ice shrank to a record low in the summer of 2012.
"There will be a lot of improvements compared to today - quite simply by making it much easier for countries in the Arctic to help each other when needed," said Karsten Klepsvik, polar expert at Norway’s foreign ministry until end-2012.