About 13 percent of the planet’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas lie under Arctic land and water, most of it offshore, according to projections.
One-third of that oil and more than half of the gas is buried on and off Russia’s coastline. And for the first time, the trove of energy is accessible to drilling, a result of both global warming—which has turned the northern ice cap into mush in the summer months—and advanced drilling technology.
Drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean poses new and difficult challenges for industry, and this is particularly worrying for conservation advocates who oppose Russia’s advance into the Arctic.
“We saw how hard it was to respond to the serious offshore drilling incident in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon spill,” said Doug Norlen, director for Pacific Environment, an advocacy and research organization that supports a moratorium on Arctic drilling. Now imagine a spill in the Arctic, where “you are dealing with places that are far away from response capabilities. … It’s a recipe for a disaster.”
Although drilling conditions vary across the ocean’s 5.4 million square miles, the risk of a blowout and a catastrophic spill are threatening all over. Fast-developing storms can wield hurricane-force winds. Icebergs up to a mile in length drift across its choppy currents. Water temperatures typically hover well below zero. If an accident were to occur in countries lacking emergency response infrastructure along their Arctic coastlines—as in Russia—it could take emergency response crews several hours to arrive at the site under the best conditions and perhaps days.
Marilyn Heiman, director of the U.S. Arctic program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that to respond to spills immediately all countries bordering icy Arctic waters would need emergency response centers that are located within a few hundred miles of a drilling site. These centers would have to be manned by response workers 24 hours a day, because once oil enters the sea, the dark slime can be carried to distant shorelines via strong ocean currents or sink to the depths of the ocean floor.
No country with icy waters has a center this close. In Alaska, the nearest Coast Guard response unit is around 1,000 miles from planned Arctic drilling locations. (It is unclear whether U.S. Arctic drilling regulations, to be released later this year, will require closer emergency centers at planned U.S. drilling sites.)
Knizhnikov of the environmental organization WWF said he’s skeptical that adequate centers will be built in Russia. “It will be very difficult to become reality because [the centers are] very costly,” he said. “It will take many, many years before they will be created, if they will be created.”
Still, on July 1, Russia passed stricter safety standards and pollution cleanup regulations for offshore drillers than it has in place for inland operations.
Russia now requires companies to have more and better equipment to collect spilled oil—such as booms and skims on hand at all times at drilling sites. The rules also require companies to react to spills faster. According to Russian law, drilling operators must respond to spills at sea within four hours of discovering them, whereas companies have six hours to respond to spills on land.
Most experts say the regulations are not sufficient to address serious concerns about a major spill in the Arctic, one of Earth’s last pristine wilderness areas. For instance, regulations dictating the type of safety equipment and spill response operators must use are too general to be effective, many say.
Even those experts who say Russia’s rules are adequate have their worries.
“The regulations are good,” said Alexei Bambulyak, a Russian environment expert at the Norwegian environment research institution Akvaplan-niva. However, “whether they are followed or not is up to the [drilling] operators.”
The five countries with major Arctic claims—Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the United States—are moving somewhat slower than Russia, either because of uncertain energy prospects or environmental security and safety concerns.
Norway is the exception, but it has the world’s most stringent standards for offshore drilling safety and is drilling in warmer waters than Russia with less sea ice. In 2007, Norway’s Statoil  became the first driller in the world to produce natural gas in Arctic waters.
According to Eric Haalan, a spokesperson for Statoil, Arctic drillers everywhere have “absolutely everything to lose” by working in the Arctic Ocean unprepared.
“Meaning, if we don’t do it properly, we lose more than anyone else. And we have seen the consequences of accidents that have happened in the past, and what effect that has had on even large companies,” he said.