One of the primary concerns about expanded oil drilling in the Arctic is that the Arctic is far away from everything. Until very, very recently, no one lived anywhere near the Arctic; even today, it’s pretty sparsely populated. As we’ve noted before, an oil spill a few hundred miles from New Orleans in 2010 took months to stop. How long will it take to cap a broken well in icy water thousands of miles from any resources?

To that end, governments interested in exploring resource extraction in the Arctic came together to develop a plan for just such a contingency. And as Greenpeace notes, the plan sucks. From the BBC:

In 2011 The Arctic Council members [Ed. – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, U.S.] signed the Nuuk Declaration that committed them to develop an international agreement on how to respond to oil pollution in the northern seas. …

The plan says that “each party shall maintain a national system for responding promptly and effectively to oil pollution incidents” without requiring any clear details on the number of ships or personnel that would be needed to cope with a spillage.

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Seriously. Greenpeace has a copy of the full draft document [PDF]. It can be summed up in three bullet points:

  1. Here are the countries making this agreement and here is what “oil” means.
  2. If anything happens, we agree to deal with it.
  3. Here is everyone’s emergency contact information.

Think I’m oversimplifying? Go look. This took them two years.

Sweden’s ambassador to the Council thinks the agreement is great, saying, “The agreement is a great step forward for the protection of the Arctic from an oil spill because it sets up a system for the states to co-operate in practice.” Because if this weren’t in place — what? If Shell fucked up and caused a spill, Russia and Canada would just tell the U.S. “tough shit”? No, if there were a spill that threatened the shoreline of any country, it would get involved with or without this document. And I suspect everyone already has the right phone numbers.

There will be a spill in the Arctic. That’s not me saying it. That’s Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby saying it. When that happens, it would be nice to know that there’s some sort of well-funded, well-staffed, resource-heavy international entity standing by to spring into action. That there’s something there in the empty Arctic that can be on-scene in short order to deal with the problem.

But, you know. Lip service is good too.

Hat-tip: Brian Merchant.