Remember how difficult it was to clean up the Gulf oil disaster? Now imagine it all on ice. Secret documents from the U.K. Foreign Office show that if a spill of that size occurred in the Arctic—where oil companies are itching to start offshore drilling—it would be nearly impossible to clean up.
The emails, which were sent earlier this year and recently obtained by Greenpeace, show how concerned the U.K. is about a potential Gulf-like oil disaster as Russian oil companies make preparations to drill in the Arctic. One of the documents spells it out: The impact would be higher because of the region's lower temperatures, lack of oil-eating bacteria (which are inhibited by sunlight), and remoteness. An oil spill could possibly go "unchecked for months" if it happened during one of the nine months out of the year when ice buildup restricts drilling operations.
Ultimately, the U.K. is resigned to the fact that drilling will happen, so it had better start thinking about ways to cash in: "The oil companies will operate regardless, so the issue is how best to ensure the most responsible exploration, whilst ensuring maximum opportunities for U.K. business... At what price—can the U.K. risk losing business opportunities for the sake of environmental protection?"
Therein lies the problem. Even though the U.K. knows the risks are big, it doesn't want to lose out. The same goes for every other country with interests in Arctic drilling. Most countries know it's a bad idea, but the potential revenue is too great to be ignored. And, as one of the Foreign Office documents points out, "if in the Arctic High North we do not seek the resources to satisfy global energy demand, it is unclear where else these resources might be found."
[Image: Flickr user longhorndave]