Shell’s departure ends oil threat to Arctic gem
On September 27, six weeks after it began exploratory drilling off the Northwest Coast of Alaska, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it is abandoning its quest for Arctic oil. Shell’s decision to cease operations in the Chukchi Sea is excellent news for the Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve nearby.
The Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve is the only marine World Heritage site in the Arctic. It boasts the world’s largest population of Pacific walrus, with up to 100,000 animals congregating in the island’s rookeries, and the highest density of ancestral polar bear dens. In the summer, it is a major feeding ground for grey whale and the northernmost nesting ground for 100 migratory bird species.
This Arctic jewel, and the wealth of wildlife it supports, were threatened by Shell’s Chukchi Sea operations. Shell’s own risk assessments found that plumes from an oil spill could reach the buffer zone of Wrangel Island Reserve within 30 days, and a study by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management confirmed potential impacts to the reserve. The World Heritage Committee noted serious concern about the Chukchi Sea oil exploration at its summer session in Bonn, Germany.
At that meeting, the Committee reiterated that oil exploration or exploitation is incompatible with World Heritage status, which is supported by the commitments made by industry leaders not to undertake such activities within World Heritage properties. The Committee added that mineral, oil and gas projects developed near World Heritage sites should not be approved until it is clear the projects will not impact the sites’ Outstanding Universal Value.
In recent decades, industry leaders have become increasingly sensitive to the implications of World Heritage status. In 2003, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) endorsed a Position Statement on Mining and Protected Areas – known as the “no-go” commitment.
Shell’s decision to leave the Chukchi Sea is another step forward in protecting World Heritage sites from the threat of inappropriate development, and ensuring these treasures are protected for the enjoyment of future generations.
The World Heritage Committee,
- Having examined Document WHC-15/39.COM/7B.Add,
- Recalling Decision 36 COM 7B.20, adopted at its 36th session (Saint-Petersburg, 2012),
- Expresses its concern that the construction of a military base appears to have started within the property, with potential to impact significantly on its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), regrets that the State Party did not provide any information on this matter, as required by Paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines, nor a response to requests from the World Heritage Centre, and urges the State Party to immediately halt any construction works within the property until the potential impacts are fully assessed and suitable measures to avoid deterioration of the OUV of the property are in place;
- Notes with serious concern the reported oil exploration activities undertaken by Rosneft in the vicinity of the property, and that one of the exploration ships is reported to have repeatedly entered the property, reiterates its position that oil exploration or exploitation is incompatible with World Heritage status, which is supported by the commitments made by industry leaders not to undertake such activities within World Heritage properties and requests the State Party to urgently ensure that no oil exploration or exploitation activities occur within the property, nor are permitted in its vicinity if they could have negative impacts on the property, taking into account the high sensitivity of the property’s Arctic ecosystem;
- Also requests the State Party to undertake Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) of the abovementioned activities, including an assessment of potential direct, indirect and cumulative impacts on the OUV of the property, in line with IUCN’s World Heritage Advice Note on Environmental Assessment, and to submit these EIAs to the World Heritage Centre, for review by IUCN;
- Further requests the State Party of the United States of America to ensure that no development proceeds before the potential impacts of the oil exploration planned by Shell Oil on the OUV of the property have been fully assessed and to submit these EIAs to the World Heritage Centre, for review by IUCN, prior to any approval of permits for exploration activities, in order to ensure that any oil exploration or exploitation in the Chukchi Sea will not have negative impacts on the property;
- Requests furthermore the State Party to invite a joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission to assess the state of conservation of the property and evaluate current and potential impacts from the construction of the military base within the property and from the oil exploration activities undertaken by Rosneft and/or others, as well as other planned activities in the area and their cumulative impacts;
- Reiterates its request to the State Party to develop and implement an effective plan for tourism use within the property, taking into account the particular sensitivity of the tundra ecosystem, conduct an EIA for the planned tourism infrastructure development, in line with IUCN World Heritage Advice Note on Environmental Assessment, and submit these documents to the World Heritage Centre, for review by IUCN;
- Requests moreover the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2016, an updated report, including a 1-page executive summary, on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the above, for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 40th session in 2016.