A joint pledge by the US and Canada to reduce methane emissions for oil and gas activities in the Arctic and limit fossil fuel extraction is putting pressure on Russia to follow suit.
The pledge was in response to increasing concern across the world at the intention of the eight nations with territorial claims in the Arctic to exploit its resources, even though this risks making climate change far worse.
At the poles, the Earth is warming twice as fast as the global average. In the Arctic, this is disrupting the way of life of about 13 million people – including about 10 per cent who are indigenous – and adversely affecting countless other organisms.
Increased ice melt is opening new sea routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and is tempting oil and gas companies to dream about new fossil fuel riches onshore and offshore in the warming environment.
More shipping and an extraction boom will not only release more greenhouse gases, but also add to the Arctic’s burden of black carbon, or soot, which darkens land and ice, further speeding up melting.
Thus the Arctic is in the ironic position of being the most vulnerable populated region to climate change and also an untapped trove of climate change’s primary cause.
Safe for humans
The joint statement by US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month pledged that both countries will take major and co-ordinated action to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas activities, reduce the amount of black carbon (soot from incomplete combustion) emitted in the Arctic, and allow fossil fuel extraction there only when it is safe for humans and the environment.
Eight countries own land inside the Arctic Circle and make territorial claims for varying distances offshore. They jointly administer the region through the Arctic Council (AC), whose decisions must be unanimous to be formally adopted.
The US-Canada statement commits the two countries to policies recently recommended by the AC that failed to achieve unanimous endorsement, says Whit Sheard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s international Arctic programme.
One of the most important pledges in the statement says: “The leaders commit to reduce methane emissions by 40-45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025 from the oil and gas sector…
“If oil and gas development and exploration proceeds, activities must align with science-based standards between the two nations that ensure appropriate preparation for operating in Arctic conditions … We will determine with Arctic partners how best to address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.”
Over short timescales, methane is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, and reducing leaking or flared methane at oil and gas operations is “incredibly cost effective”, says Drew Nelson, senior manager for natural gas at theEnvironmental Defence Fund and a former US State Department official. Addressing methane and black carbon is one of the fastest ways to slow the pace of warming.
Besides the US and Canada, the biggest player among the other six AC countries is Russia, which has a very long coastline inside the Arctic Circle and has recently claimed a further 463,000 square miles offshore.
The Russian oil and gas industry is also the world’s largest emitter of oil and gas-related methane. Russia controls more than half of all the identified oil and natural gas in the Arctic, so how the country behaves is vital to the future of the region.
Despite recent fears of a new Cold War between West and East, many observers consider Russia to be operating in good faith with regard to Arctic issues. “They really are trying in the Arctic to continue to be rational actors who work collaboratively,” Sheard says.
In Russia’s 2015 report to the AC on black carbon and methane, its Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment stressed that “Russia sees huge potential in the Arctic Council to promote and expand a constructive agenda for our common region”, and that “there is no room for confrontation or aggravation of nervousness in the Arctic region.”
Meredydd Evans, a scientist with the US Joint Global Change Research Institute, has collaborated with Russian researchers to measure Russia’s oil and gas sector methane emissions. She says Russia was “one of the first countries to adopt a comprehensive methane policy”, and is now doing the same with black carbon from all sources.
“When the Russian government realises there’s a problem, it does work to make changes,” Evans adds.
But what about the other side of the equation – oil and gas production? There is already considerable oil and gas extraction in the Arctic, including the US’s Alaskan North Slope oilfields and Russia’s onshore operations along the Kara and Barents Seas.
But drilling and moving oil and gas in the Arctic environment is expensive, dangerous and risky. In late 2015, Shell abandoned its Chukchi Sea offshore project because it was unable to find recoverable oil.
Environmentalists stress the impossibility of cleaning up an oil spill in the dark, cold, storm-wracked Arctic. The low and volatile price of oil globally also makes Arctic extraction less attractive in the short term.
So, for the time being, there is something of a hiatus on the extraction side of the Arctic climate conundrum, deflecting attention from what Elliot Diringer, a former senior policy adviser at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, calls the “tension that runs through [climate policymaking]”.
Diringer, who is currently an executive vice-president at the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, adds that, while it is “imperative to reduce GHG emissions, on the other hand we’re not going to move away from fossil fuels overnight”.
If and when energy companies and fuel-hungry nations ramp up their Arctic extraction efforts, the tension will take centre stage again.
In the meantime, the US-Canadian statement seems likely to encourage other countries to take positive steps to protect the Arctic.
The willingness of two highly-developed and significant greenhouse emitting nations to “do the right thing” in the Arctic, Sheard says, will apply moral pressure to those AC countries that have signalled willingness, but have stopped short of full commitment.