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Combating Climate Change on the Front Line

By Laura Strickler

Mitigating climate change is a daunting task, especially in the Arctic where surface temperature is rising at more than twice the rate of that in lower latitudes. Climate change in the Arctic also has global impacts. As the Greenland ice sheet melts, sea levels rise in Florida, and permafrost thaw has serious consequences for global carbon dioxide levels. However, like in trying to quit smoking, starting small can yield big results. 

Limiting the emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon and methane, could jumpstart immediate benefits for the global climate similar to the first few hours of stabilizing health benefits after a last cigarette. Because black carbon and methane only stay in the atmosphere for a short time, curbing their emissions will give more immediate results than curbing emissions of carbon dioxide, though reducing both is necessary for limiting long-term climate change.

Black carbon emissions are of particular concern in the Arctic, where particles land on snow and ice and transform heat-reflecting surfaces into heat-absorbing surfaces. This process further accelerates melting, the rise in regional temperatures, and subsequent global impacts. On the other hand, methane emitted anywhere in the world is a powerful warming agent; it is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century. Taken together, reducing emissions of these two warming agents in a region with a strong history of cooperation would be an important step toward mitigating climate change.

Hiatus from the Arctic Race – An Opportunity

The potential for an Arctic ‘resource race’ has long been a topic of debate among regional experts. The oil and gas industry already operates in parts of the Arctic, and it has significant growth potential as sea ice retreats. As Shell withdraws from the Chukchi Sea this fall, Eni trudges through its plans to produce oil from the world’s northernmost offshore field in the Barents Sea. However, the U.S. Department of Interior has cancelled upcoming lease sales in Alaska for 2016 and 2017, and the current price of oil makes many of the world’s northernmost deposits uneconomical to pursue. Whether this is evidence that a resource race is unlikely or simply a hiatus from a race that was only beginning, it presents an opportunity to bring Arctic stakeholders to the table and discuss responsible resource extraction in the challenging Arctic environment. As recently stated by President Hollande of France at the annual Arctic Circle meeting, “Economic progress cannot be based on natural disaster.” 

An Arctic Oil and Gas Best Practices Dialogue

Oil and gas production is a significant source of short-lived climate pollutant emissions, and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that around 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered resources are in the Arctic. On top of intended gas production, crude oil production often includes some associated natural gas production. Use or disposal of the associated gas is imperative for safety. In remote areas or areas with limited infrastructure for natural gas capture, storage, and transport, the associated gas is either vented or it is flared, meaning burned off. On a global scale flaring emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, and it also emits black carbon and methane if there is poor combustion in the flare. Poor combustion results from wind, impurities in the fuel, or inefficient equipment. Venting and flaring both waste a valuable energy resource and contribute to global climate change unnecessarily. 

Between 2007 and 2012, the United States and Russia both ranked among the top five countries in the world in terms of volume of gas flared, and the largest stocks of estimated undiscovered Arctic hydrocarbon resources are in U.S. and Russian territory. On the other hand, Norway achieves plenty of oil development in its territory with strict regulations and minimal venting and flaring. Physical conditions differ widely across the Arctic, and different sites present various challenges. Bringing Arctic operators to the table with local stakeholders and practical environmental organizations to share lessons learned and build consensus on best practices for limiting emissions of black carbon and methane would have positive climate impacts in the Arctic region and beyond. 

The Clean Air Task Force has a history of positive partnerships with the private sector and experience instigating and participating in best practice dialogues related to energy development. The organization could apply this experience in the Arctic by opening a discussion with Arctic oil and gas operators to develop voluntary guidelines for responsible hydrocarbon development. The recently established Arctic Economic Council and its Responsible Resource Development Working Group could provide an excellent forum for these discussions. The Council’s representatives include government-nominated leaders from the oil and gas industry and from indigenous organizations, and its presentation at the Arctic Council Ministerial this past April included plans to “develop best practice guidelines for Arctic energy development” between 2015 and 2017.

The Arctic Oil and Gas Best Practices Dialogue proposed by the Clean Air Task Force would include industry, indigenous representatives, and environmental organizations and would result in practical guidelines to serve as a foundation for future regulatory efforts. This would harmonize regional practices and ensure that Arctic hydrocarbon resource extraction is done in the most responsible way. Ultimately, the dialogue would complement the work of the Arctic Council and the United States’ focus on climate change and short-lived climate pollutants as part of its two-year chairmanship.   

A Big Step in the Right Direction

Cutting black carbon and methane emissions in the Arctic from oil and gas and other industries will have a disproportionately positive impact on global climate. Slowing the rate of global climate change buys the international community time to adapt to climate change and build political will for decarbonizing the global economy. The Arctic region has a history of cooperation even during times of tension between the Arctic states in other parts of the world. This regional good will provides a strong foundation for stabilizing the Arctic’s climate by first reducing black carbon and methane emissions in the fastest changing environment in the world and for making the task at hand less daunting.

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Laura Strickler lives in Washington, D.C. and is a consultant to the Clean Air Task Force on Arctic policy. She was a 2014 Knauss Marine Policy fellow with NOAA and holds a graduate degree in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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