The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) would not provide a representative for interview for our February programme, but they did agree to answer a few questions in writing. These responses were received on 18th February.
In short, the government says that meeting predicted oil demand is more important than climate security; and that current policies are sufficient. Both these positions are untenable. As to why the government has been working to water down EU legislation to make Arctic drilling safer, the government avoids the question.
Here’s the February programme – our second consecutive show focussing on the Arctic. Our guests this week are:
- Joan Walley MP, Chair Environmental Audit Committee
- Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace UK
- Louise Rouse, Fair Pensions
- James Marriott, Platform
In January’s Climate Radio we explored how the observed rate of change in the polar north is surprising scientists into revising their projections for the speed at which global warming will unfold – unless we take urgent action. But where scientists see warning signs and a wake up call, oil companies and their friends in government see only economic opportunity. So this month we take a look at where some of the battle lines lie in the fight to stop the Arctic being drilled for oil and gas and how concerned citizens can get involved and help win the war.
Last September a cross-party parliamentary committee of MPs in the UK called for a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic – concerned about the potential impact on climate change and about the lax safety regime surrounding this high-risk activity. In January this year, the UK government responded by rejecting the committee’s key recommendations and using old science to suggest that Arctic drilling could be compatible with avoiding dangerous climate change. At the same time a Freedom of Information Act request discovered they the government had been lobbying against EU legislation designed to make Arcitc drilling safer.
Over the course of 2012 Shell’s claims that they were “Arctic Ready” collapsed after a succession of calamities and oil companies and investors started getting cold feet. In this programme we also look at how Shell’s Arctic drilling plans poses a risk to your pension and what you can do about it.
It’s been a bit of a tradition to start a new Climate Radio series with a programme about the science. The idea is simply to give a foundation to everything that follows. It’s not always easy to look the science straight in the face and see what it’s telling us. The scale of the challenge can lead to denial and a sense of disempowerment. But unless we correctly assess the problem we face, we will continue to come up with inadequate solutions.
Our two guides to what’s happening in the Arctic are Professor Peter Wadhams, Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University and Professor Timothy Lenton, the award-winning Chair in Climate Change and Earth Systems Science at University of Exeter.
The Arctic: The Canary in the Climate Coal Mine
In the absence of urgent action on climate change, there may be a number of tipping points in climate-driven systems in the Arctic, which threaten to rapidly escalate the danger for the whole planet. A collapse of summer sea-ice, increased methane emissions from thawing permafrost, runaway melting of the Greenland ice-sheet, and a collapse of the thermo-haline circulation, may all be approaching in the Arctic and will have disastrous consequences for global climate and sea levels. These together comprise a wake-up call to reinvigorate efforts to tackle climate change. A lack of consensus on precisely how fast any tipping points are approaching in the Arctic should not be used as an argument for inaction. (Environment Audit Committee, Protecting The Arctic, September 2012, p.21).
My review of The Oil Road has been finally printed in today’s Independent, but has been heavily cut due to space restrictions. Here’s the original 600 word version that I submitted:
The Oil Road by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello (Verso Books, £16.99)
In the same way our culture has become largely ignorant of the journey our food takes to get to our table, we are also ignorant of the route fossil fuels take to power our high-consumption, energy-intensive lifestyles. It’s the way both agribusiness and the energy companies like it – the less we know about the far-flung impacts of their enterprises the better.
Marriott and Minio-Paluello are two campaigners with the London-based oil watchdog Platform – an organisation that has bred a kind of activism that, while based in hard research, experiments with creative ways of communicating its findings. In The Oil Road the pair take one continuous trip along the route by which oil from the Caspian Sea arrives at the rate of a million barrels a day at the refineries of Western Europe.
The project is reminiscent of last year’s Extreme Rambling – Walking Israel’s Barrier for Fun by comedian-activist Mark Thomas, but comes after 12 years of visits along the route as part of an ongoing exploration of the impacts of BP’s controversial $25 billion investment in drilling platforms and pipelines. Here too we get to meet vicariously the people shaping and shaped by the route in question and reconstruct a more accurate picture of what is otherwise a hotly politicised, and therefore deliberately obfuscated, reality.
The journey starts at the Caspian oil wells in Baku, Azerbaijan where the familiar rusting landscapes of Soviet era ‘nodding donkey’ oil derricks are being overshadowed by the shiny steel and glass of a corrupt construction boom. The authors meet Sabit Bagirov, who led the state oil company during the negotiations that culminated in the signing of the ‘Contract of the Century’ in 1994, with a consortium of oil companies headed by BP.
Bagirov argues that the oil companies used the backdrop of the Azeri-Armenian conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory (1988-1994) to argue for a greater share because they would be operating in an environment of high-risk. Indeed over the course of the negotiations from 1989 to 1993, the proposed Azeri share dropped from 50% to 20%. Bagirov shows them the unpublished contract that includes a $90 million sweetener payment to the Azeri government, $30 million of which was delivered personally by Baroness Thatcher.
Once on the road we meet refugees from the now “frozen” conflict as well as householders under whose properties the pipeline runs and farmers still awaiting compensation for loss of income during the laying of the pipe. The ubiquitous BP public relations representatives are generally diverting and evasive but occasionally unwittingly frank. “The ultimate goal of community investment is to have good relations with communities – ultimately to secure BP’s assets,” says one about the corporation’s token social projects.
“We closed it down to the media,” says another when asked about the Russian bombing of the pipeline that BP had dismissed as “fanciful”. Our narrators had been able to confirm the reports of the attack by locating the site and standing in the surviving craters which ran up to four metres deep.
It’s a personable and lovingly-crafted narrative, a rich tapestry of first-hand anecdote and historical reconstruction with a political and social excavation of the geography that weaves in the region’s changing fortunes, from the Tsarist through the Soviet to the current pro-western repressive regimes.
Along the way there are important lessons for investors about how oil companies manage and disguise risk; for policy makers about the real meaning of “energy security” in the 21st century; and for activists thinking about where and when to intervene in a complex system.