Is it time for environmentalists and big business to put their differences aside and devise a sustainable solution for the Arctic region, asks James Gray
Environmental and economic concerns collided in parliament last week. On Wednesday morning, a cross party consensus was reached that the 30 Greenpeace activists arrested by the Russians while trying to board an oil rig, incarcerated in harsh conditions in Murmansk and charged originally with piracy (maximum penalty 15 years), now reduced to hooliganism (which still merits seven years in Russia) were being dealt with unnecessarily harshly.
Shortly afterwards, Labour leader Ed Miliband taunted David Cameron at PMQs for the third week in a row over energy prices and Labour’s pledge to freeze them to consumers. That this line of attack was (comparatively) successful is attested to both by the level of noise from both sides of the Chamber, and also by No 10 rushing out an ill-thought-through counter-proposal to limit price rises by rolling back green taxes on fuel. (What happened to “Go Green, Vote Blue,” “The Greenest Government Ever” and the Norwegian husky photo opportunity memorably, if illogically, panned by Mr Miliband as “Hug a Husky?”)
The reality, of course, is that both plans are largely impractical attempts to secure popular votes. In the last 20 years oil has risen from $10 a barrel to $120, with consequent domestic price rises which cannot stopped neither by the market interference which Mr Miliband is proposing, nor by rolling back green taxation.
If my memories of my time as an oil trader serve me well, when there is too much of the stuff, the price goes down—any kind of interruption to the supply, real or imagined, and it goes up. “More buyers than sellers” as the traders used to call it; and there is nothing any government can do to stand in the way of the inexorable power of the markets.
If the government’s strategic aim is to keep domestic energy prices low, then there is only one way to do it—by making sure that there is more energy available than people want to buy. And this is where Greenpeace comes into the equation. They are quaintly of the view that any form of non-renewable energy source is a fair target for direct action by activists-—whether that be fracking in Sussex, nuclear power in Somerset, or drilling for oil in the Arctic. More than mildly Luddite in their approach, Greenpeace are also rather charmingly self-delusional. And the ever-higher energy prices which their Luddism would produce—and indeed which is a pretty explicit part of their panoply of policies—is of course directly at odds with Messrs Miliband and Cameron.
It is also self-delusional for the simple reason that with oil at $120 a barrel, and with the Arctic ice demonstrably in retreat, commercial exploitation of the 50 per cent of the world’s oil and gas which lurks beneath the Arctic waves is practical for the first time in history. Of course it is going to be exploited, and hoping, as Greenpeace do, that the issue will just disappear, is forlorn in the extreme.
Most sensible people agree that climate change is having a demonstrably dramatic effect on the Arctic ice. Despite the hopes of the most ardent of climate change sceptics, it is clear that it is retreating at a dramatic pace. Now let’s leave on one side for the moment the well-worn climate change questions. Does it exist? Is it cyclical? Are the cycles speeding up? Is it man-made? And can we do anything about it? Those questions are for another time and another place.
What is plain is that the ice is retreating, which both opens up significant industrial opportunities and at the same time presents us with pretty earth-shattering environmental problems and concerns. Oil and gas exploration and production, rare earths (Greenland has a large part of the world’s supply, and recently announced the start of Uranium mining), commercial fishing on a gigantic and largely unregulated scale, bulk shipping of ores and coal through the North Sea Route cutting weeks off the traditional ones through Suez or Panama; and adventure tourism one of the industry’s fastest-expanding sectors.
What is plain is that—like it or not—those things are already happening. And no amount of protest by Greenpeace will stop them.
So surely it is time for environmentalists on the one hand and big business on the other to emerge from their entrenched positions and sit down to talk about how sensible, sustainable business can be conducted in the Arctic and South Atlantic. They should be talking about how to both preserve these most delicate of environments, and also to fund enhancements of them. The multi-million pound eradication of rats from South Georgia in order to preserve rare birds, for example, or the removal of the catastrophic environmental degradation left behind by the evacuating Soviets on Wrangel Island in the Arctic, could be happily funded by the oil industry if the two sides would open lines of communication.
Industrial exploitation of the Arctic is without a doubt going to happen. But will it be environmentally sensitive, delicately sustainable; or will it be a profit-driven gold rush with potentially devastating consequences for these most fragile of environments?
Is it not truly time for the two sides to stop their posturing and grandstanding; and to sit down together to hammer out what should quite rightly be the toughest imaginable rules and regulations, protocols and stipulations to protect the Arctic and South Atlantic/Antarctic. The two sides are poles apart. But do they need to really be?
James Gray is MP for North Wiltshire, Chairman of the Poles Apart Conference (polesapartconference.org.uk) to be held at RUSI, Whitehall on Tuesday 29 October, and author of a newly-published book also entitled Poles Apart.