The World Wildlife Fund in Russia is calling for a pause in the 'black gold' rush gathering pace north of the Arctic Circle, as it calls on the Russian government to suspend drilling operations planned for the region's Pechora Sea.
It is claiming that the clean-up plan of Russian oil-and-gas giant, Gazprom, is "totally inadequate" and that the company has begun to tow an oil drilling platform into place in the Russian Arctic.
WWF Russia maintain that the company is unable to properly deal with the devastating consequences of an oil-spill under the ice. The Russian president has recently signed an order expressly stating that permits to drill in the Arctic should only be given if "operators have proven techniques of under-ice oil spill response."
Spill would 'echo through Europe'
The rewards for drilling in these ice-laden waters are great - 44 million barrels a year, from just the one field, Prirazlomnoye, being developed. That adds up to around $4.5 billion, at today's crude oil prices. But the price to be paid by an uncontrolled spill in the Arctic is measured in very different terms, says WWF Russia spokesperson Aleksey Knizhnikov.
"A spill here would not be only locally devastating, but would echo through Europe", he said. "Each year, millions of birds migrate to breeding and feeding grounds on the Pechora Sea and the surrounding coast. The rare '(Russian) Red Book' Atlantic walruses also have core habitats in this area." He claims the problem with ongoing oil field development in this environmentally-sensitive area is that no Russian companies have the capability to properly deal with a major spill. Current plans can only handle a relatively small spill of up to 7,000 barrels.
And a large oil spill is not likely to be completely far-fetched a scenario. The Pechora Sea is host to a number of hazards, including 25-feet thick ice floes, 40-foot waves and more than 20 big storms each year. With the nearest emergency response center over 600 miles to the west, in Murmansk, a rapid response on the scale of that seen for BP's Deepwater Horizon spill, would be difficult.
So WWF has joined up with other environmental groups to ask for the plans to be put on ice - and for there to be an Arctic-wide initiative to develop much-needed oil-spill response infrastructure. Many think that such a plan can't come soon enough, in a region that is increasingly in the cross-hairs of oil-companies, keenly watching the shrinking of the Arctic ice cap.
Top Image Credit: Oil rig being towed © Trondur