The UK is "complacently standing by" as firms start drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic. The Environmental Audit Committee in UK said this was despite oil companies being unable to prove "they could clean up an oil spill in such harsh conditions". Members renewed their call for a halt to new drilling, saying it was risky for the climate and the environment. The government said it was not its place to tell Arctic states which resources they could extract.
Last month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that two-thirds of existing fossil fuel reserves cannot be burned before 2050 if global temperatures are to be kept within the projected danger threshold of a 2C rise. Exploring for new reserves in the Arctic is therefore "needlessly risky", they argued. “What happens in the Arctic will affect the UK, impacting our weather systems and biodiversity” says EAC chairwoman Joan Walley.
The committee's report follows its call in September for a halt on drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic until safety is improved, citing fears that a spill could caused unprecedented environmental damage. MPs said they wanted to see a standard pan-Arctic spill response, unlimited liability for firms and an Arctic environmental sanctuary. Committee chairwoman Joan Walley said, "Yet this government is complacently standing by and watching new oil and gas drilling in the region."
She added: "The rapidly-disappearing Arctic sea ice should be a wake-up call for this government to tackle climate change, not pave the way for a corporate carve-up of the region's resources." A government spokesman said it disagreed with the call for a moratorium. "We are very aware of the possible environmental impact of an oil spill in the Arctic and support the use of the highest drilling standards," he said.
"However, the UK is not an Arctic state and it is not for us to tell other countries which resources they can and cannot extract from their own sovereign territory." He stressed that the government believed "our approach to oil and gas exploration in the Arctic is consistent with our commitment to limit average global temperature increase to two degrees". He added,"The UK does have strong environmental, economic, scientific and political interests in the Arctic and this summer we will be publishing an Arctic policy framework for the first time."
But Greenpeace UK political director Ruth Davis said drilling for oil in the Arctic was "incompatible with the UK's climate change goals and creates unmanageable risks to a unique and vulnerable ecosystem". She said that while minsters claimed "protecting this pristine environment is central to the UK's stance on the Arctic" a failure "to face up to the dangers of drilling in the far north suggests its real interests lie in promoting the irresponsible plans" of oil companies.
Earlier this week, scientists said the release of large amounts of methane from thawing permafrost in the Arctic could have huge economic impacts on the world. The researchers estimated the climate effects of the release of this gas could cost $60 trillion (£39 trillion), roughly the size of the global economy in 2012.