Arctic Drilling: an Early Warning

The Arctic ice cap first formed some three million years ago, and despite its remote location and harsh, inhospitable conditions it is home to some four million people and provides unique habitat for polar bears, seals, reindeer, amongst others. Over 40 indigenous languages are spoken in the Arctic; some languages are down to only one or two remaining speakers.1 It remains a unique, fragile and symbolic part of this planet.

The impacts of climate change are being felt most intensely in the Arctic and the region is changing rapidly – with dramatic consequences. The region holds the largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of the largest undeveloped oil reserves (according to estimates, the region holds 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas). Changing environmental conditions present opportunities for a grotesque carve up: the new, and perhaps final frontier for oil and gas. What most expected to be an environmental wake-up call, instead has become a promise of access and lure of profit. 

Oil companies have yet to prove that they could responsibly clean up any potential oil spill in extreme conditions and yet exploration has already begun. Repeated failures and setbacks in recent months in this harshest of environments shows that drilling should not be happening here. Existing infrastructure is inadequate to respond to any emergency, and, since the Arctic features a short productive season, low temperatures, and limited sunlight, it can take much longer than would be expected for these regions to recover from habitat disruption, tundra disturbance and oil spills. Costly lessons from the past, including the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico teach us that there is no safe way to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic, no way to guarantee wildlife will not be harmed by exploration and extraction and no way to ensure the Arctic will be protected for future generations.  For what offers a supply of fuel for only a few years, environmental and social problems will remain long after the oil and gas has been extracted.

“I am haunted by the worry that an oil spill will occur in our waters. The animals would either disappear or be so contaminated that my children or grandchildren would be forced to decide which is less harmful to them: contaminated whale meat or processed food shipped up from someplace like Costco . . . I know that genocide is a harsh word, but that’s what it would be.” Caroline Cannon, longtime community activist and President of her local tribal council, The Iñupiats, giving evidence to a US House Subcommittee in 2011.

Communities already struggle to cope with changing conditions, threatening their survival on the very land that has been home to them for generations. Shipping patterns have begun to carve up the ocean. The Arctic faces an uncertain future of considerable magnitude.

Concerns are increasing that existing governance processes, legal frameworks and policies are insufficient to meet the needs of local communities and protect ecosystems for future generations. Intervention is required. The Arctic Council, not a legally recognised body is clearly not designed to deal with a corporate rush of this scale.  Member States to the Council are accused of failing to offer a coherent policy or approach, as growing calls for the Arctic to be legally recognised as a no drill zone are being ignored.


Issuing an Early Warning. The threat of drilling in the Arctic presents such enormous risk that we do not need to wait for such a crime to be committed. We have a clear warning of the possibility of that crime, and we need to do all we can now to prevent it.

Read other examples of crimes against future generations: Bottom Trawling, Cultural Heritage Destruction, Denying Girls an EducationNuclear Weapons, Casino Finance, Razing the Rainforest

"Yes moko, just like the sea which has to move its tides
so we can collect Kaimoana at certain times.
Rules give harmony to our lives
so we live with
minimum conflicts.
Working in harmony with others, ae moko, it’s nature’s
act of saying,
Let us make music all together
if not in reality — then make it your dream."

WFC Councillor Pauline Tangiora

Future Justice… about thinking and acting differently, based on respect, dignity and mutual trust

…considers not just what is happening now, but the effects of our actions in the years, decades and centuries to come

… is a means of creating new rules for how we live and work, pass laws and run countries

…is the giving of rights to the poorest, the weakest, the ignored, to the planet and to the other living creatures we share it with

…is a protection for all the people yet to be born,  whose lives we are blighting before they have even started

…is about what we do now.  Our actions today will determine the conditions of life for centuries to come