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Oil exploration in seas around Greenland just too risky

A better use of Greenland’s limited resources would be to ensure that land-based mining activities provide much needed income and do not do unnecessary harm to the environment
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“All political decisions must respect the environment and nature. No matter what. We must work to protect the environment and nature for the benefit of future generations.”

Thus spoke Aleqa Hammond, Greenland’s premier, during her first address to Inatsisartut, the country’s parliament, last September.

A coalition agreement forged shortly after the March election stated plainly the new government was reluctant to grant new licences for oil exploration. Hammond reinforced that stance during an interview with Denmark’s Berlingske newspaper.

“Greenland is not as prepared as we would like,” said Hammond, in reference to oil exploration. “All activity must be performed with respect for the environment, and the people of Greenland need to be assured that the granting of licences in remote areas is safe; the further away a licence area is, the greater the risk of a disastrous oil spill.”

The premier concluded by saying: “We must listen to what the oil industry, the people of Greenland and NGOs have to say. They all have valuable input, and we have placed a moratorium on the issuing of licenses.”

Licences first, moratorium later
With Hammond’s statements in mind, it came as something of a surprise that Jens-Erik Kirkegaard, Greenland’s industry and minerals minister, diluted her position by saying that any moratorium would no take effect until the current licensing rounds were completed.

Consequently, just before Christmas, Greenland’s Self-Rule Authority was able to announce that its was making it possible for a number of companies to look for oil off the country’s north-eastern coast.

The four areas where oil exploration can now start are almost as far north as Qaanaaq – one is even further north. In other words, above the 78th parallel.

The fields are located approximately 800km from Ittoqqortoormiit, on Greenland’s eastern coast, and over 600 kilometers from Jan Mayen and Longyearbyen on Svalbard.

These must be the types of areas that Hammond considers remote and are the least prepared and would be the most damaged by an oil spill.

The WWF agrees with that assessment.

Ice every day, not keeping the oil companies away
Oil exploration in Greenland in recent years – like oil exploration everywhere – has been conducted at great risk to the environment, but it has at least taken place near some of the west coast’s larger cities and some kind of emergency equipment.

The only thing that exploration fields off north-eastern Greenland are close to are a national park, pack ice and what is perhaps the country’s largest population of polar bears; none of that will be of much help in the event of an emergency.

In fact there is so much ice in the license areas in north-eastern Greenland that the government is on record saying that there are exactly zero ice free days in the region.

It is hard to imagine how oil exploration would be conducted in the area, and even harder to imagine how even a moderate oil spill would be cleaned up.

The WWF does not believe that allocation of exploration permits in remote areas of north-eastern Greenland fits with the promise that all policy decisions “must respect the environment”.

The pressure of independence
In fact, one accident would be enough to destroy the environment over an immense area. Greenland’s government should stick to its original promise to follow a policy of caution when granting exploration licences, rather than waiting until the end of a major round to let the moratorium take effect.

The WWF understands Greenland’s wish to become independent, and hopes that the country will be able to stand on its own feet financially as soon as possible. We understand the desire for economic development, investment, tax revenue and new jobs.

Our concern is that the desire to become financially independent is putting pressure on the very environment that has supported Greenlanders for generations and continues to be the base for its economy today.

We do not want an oil spill to ruin hunting communities in Ittoqqortoormiit and around Tasiilaq. We do not want an oil spill to destroy the fishery in eastern Greenland or see oil-soaked pack ice off of Cape Farewell or fouling the southern cities.

The Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, an environmental watchdog, often advises Greenland’s Self-Rule Authority. It has identified four areas in northeast Greenland that are critical to wildlife. One of the areas – which is dangerously close to the oil exploration areas – is the annual spring breeding ground for about 100,000 Greenlandic seal pups and 15,000 hooded seals, not to mention the millions of auks and thick-billed murre that migrate through the area in late summer and fall. The area is home to polar bears, and narwhals are thought to winter on the edges of the ice.

The company you keep
Our advice would be for the Self-Rule Authority to use its limited time and resources to assure that they get the best return from projects that have already been initiated while assuring the least amount of environmental damage possible. We strongly suggest that oil exploration in north-eastern Greenland be halted until, at the very least, a clear picture of the consequences of a disastrous oil spill can be demonstrated.

At the same time, we appeal to the Danish government, via its ownership of Dong Energy, to take a hard look at whether it really wants to spend taxpayer money to possibly destroy Greenland’s environment and economy by exploring for oil at a breakneck pace.

Companies that now have exploration licences off of eastern Greenland – giants like BP, Chevron, Statoil and Shell (which as recently as last year came close its own disaster in the Arctic) – should keep in mind the cost (both financially and in terms of image) BP and Exxon paid when they caused oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaskan coast, respectively. The environment and the people in those areas still suffer from the effects.

The companies searching for oil off Greenland’s eastern coast and the country’s administration run the risk of making the same mistakes.

The author is the secretary-general of WWF Denmark.