The Arctic environment

ArcticRGB-164.jpgOGP established The Arctic Coordination Task Force to be the ‘technical and advocacy focal point for the E&P industry on issues related to upstream activities in the Arctic.’ Its objectives are to:

  • Develop a long-term strategy to address the key arctic issues for upstream industry
  • Review and shape projects of pan-arctic importance being carried out within OGP and other entities
  • Monitor, review and contribute to and provide advocacy on policy and regulatory developments affecting the Arctic
  • Advise OGP of issues impacting industry’s ability to gain access and operate in arctic regions
  • Recent years have seen increasing interest in offshore oil exploration in the Arctic and other frontier regions. While these activities may seem like new developments, the oil and gas industry has been active in the Arctic for close to 100 years, using science to better understand this unique environment, and to improve our risk-based approach to our operations. Hundreds of wells have been drilled in Arctic waters  – without a significant incident. 

 The Arctic Coordination Task Force is currently addressing several key issues.

Arctic science

The oil & gas industry has been successfully operating in the Arctic for decades, and from the start it has been conducting research in parallel with exploration and production. The industry has a history of collaboration in research projects and performing extensive assessments to ensure safe and environmentally sound operations. These activities can provide the data needed to support decision-making, facilities design and operational procedures. Such work also helps to identify opportunities to mitigate the impact of our activities and provides a better understanding of baseline environmental conditions in the Arctic.

Operators often undertake studies in collaboration with local governments, universities, regulators and indigenous populations. Indigenous populations in particular provide valuable understanding and knowledge of the Arctic environment.  These insights can be used to complement conventional science. This has resulted in the completion of thousands of independent scientific studies in the Arctic.

The industry’s collective goal is further development of the scientific studies and monitoring programmes necessary for collecting information about the environment and the subsistence lifestyles that are unique to the Arctic.

Arctic oil spill response

Decades of research has investigated all aspects of oil spill preparedness, oil spill behaviour, and options for oil spill response in the Arctic marine environment. Global practice, years of preparation and lessons from this research and from incidents are incorporated into industry’s oil spill prevention and response programmes This has included hundreds of studies, laboratory and basin experiments and field trials, principally in the United States, Canada and Scandinavia. The Industry continues to develop technologies both as individual companies and through joint industry projects to improve our ability to respond effectively to spills.

The primary focus has been on the prevention of incidents, including oil spills. Despite these efforts, the risk of an oil spill is always present. Therefore, any operation must include a plan for halting the release of hydrocarbons, and reducing to an absolute minimum any spill and its environmental impact. It is equally important to accelerate the recovery of any damaged ecosystem.

Oil spill response is demanding under any circumstances, but arctic conditions impose additional environmental and logistical challenges:

  • Remoteness
  • Low temperatures
  • Seasonal darkness
  • Presence of ice

Therefore, operators include robust assessment and management systems that address specific risks. These systems incorporate contingency plans that are sufficiently flexible to provide a response appropriate to:

  • The nature of the operation
  • The size of the spill
  • Local geography
  • The climate and/or weather conditions expected over the period of the response
  • The logistical challenges presented by remote operations

However, research has also shown that arctic conditions can work to our advantage in effective response. For example:

  • Cold water and sea ice can enhance response effectiveness by limiting the spread of oil and so allowing for more efficient in-situ burning
  • The window of opportunity for in situ burning and dispersant operations in ice-covered waters can expand significantly when compared to equivalent spills in open water.
  • Further research on a major scale is now underway through a joint industry programme. The JIP is sponsored by nine international oil and gas companies: BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Eni, ExxonMobil, Shell, Statoil, North Caspian Operating Company and Total and is the largest pan-Industry project dedicated to this field of research and development.



Climate Change

The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that during this century, the Arctic is likely to warm. As a result, Arctic sea ice may continue to decrease in both extent and thickness. Other changes could include the thawing of permafrost and increased coastal erosion. In addition to these physical changes, Arctic ecosystems are also adapting. These physical and ecological changes have also led to changes in human behaviour.

Understanding this ‘moving baseline’ presents additional challenges for oil and gas operators to ensure their facilities are safe and environmentally protective. Such changes are cited as reasons to use utmost care in considering the rate and scope of economic development within the Arctic.

However, climate change is a global issue and any specific impact on the Arctic region is more likely to be determined by global emissions of greenhouse gases rather than Arctic development alone.

In order to find solutions that address the risks of climate change the oil and gas industry is investing in ways to:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its own operations and products
  • Help customers manage their emissions from using oil and gas products
  • Advocate the wide ranging policy changes needed from governments

Sound and marine life

As part of determining the risk of operations on the environment, the oil and gas industry assesses the potential effects of sounds generated by its operations. This involves studying marine life in the area to help identify any significant environmental risks and then developing mitigation strategies to address such risks.

This work is increasingly important for operations in areas of environmental sensitivity such as the Arctic, and to progress its understanding a group of OGP members is funding research via a multi-year joint industry programme.

Technology and standards

The Arctic – with its temperature and climatic extremes, environmental sensitivities, dynamic ice conditions and frozen ground and permafrost – presents a challenging operating environment for any development. To meet those challenges, the industry is developing and using a range of cutting-edge technologies and operating standards. These help to ensure the integrity of facilities, the safety of personnel and the protection of the environment.

Natural resources management and development

The World Energy Outlook for 2012 estimates that the Arctic could hold 14% and over 25% of the world’s yet-to-be discovered global oil and gas resources respectively. However, developing these resources will be difficult,  due to the unique regional challenges.

With the world’s population expected to exceed 9 billion within 40 years, energy use is projected to double by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Even as renewables and other alternatives become increasingly available, by 2030 (according to the IEA) oil and gas will still account for over half of global energy demand.

Indigenous peoples

About four million people live in the Arctic. Around 10% of the region’s inhabitants are indigenous people, many of them living in areas that have been inhabited as far back as several thousand years. Indigenous peoples, as the traditional inhabitants of the Arctic, are key stakeholders and are integral to any development assessment and strategy.

The oil and gas industry aims to operate sustainably in the Arctic, working with indigenous peoples to develop the region’s natural resources in a manner compatible with the environment and their traditional way of life. This may include consideration of timing and location of planned activities relative to biological activity (whale migration or fish spawning periods), traditional hunting activity and transportation routes across ice, to name a few.

For more information, read our Arctic Factsheets, available at: