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Forum Discusses Arctic Oil And Gas Searches


On the first Monday of the rest of your life, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Climate change is melting ice in the Arctic. And that is opening up the top of the world to drilling, shipping traffic, and also concerns about the environment. Earlier this month, Greenpeace activists were arrested trying to board an oil platform that's owned by Russia's state gas company.

Experts from countries around the Arctic, including the United States, gathered in Russia last week, looking at the threats the Arctic thaw poses to the environment and also to local populations. Here's NPR's Corey Flintoff.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Video provided by Greenpeace showed a scrum of rubber rafts next to the towering platform, then activists firing grappling lines and climbing up the side as crewmembers from the rig tried to drive them off by blasting them with a fire hose. When it was over, the Russian Coast Guard had detained the two climbers.

A day later, commandos rappelled from a helicopter onto the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise, seizing it and detaining its crew at gunpoint. Investigators in the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk are now interrogating crew members, trying to determine whether they should be charged with - among other things - piracy. Russian President Vladimir Putin got into the issue at a meeting on the Arctic.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through translator) It's clear that they are not pirates, but these people violated the norms of international law.

FLINTOFF: Putin said that it would have been better if the Greenpeace activists had come to address their questions to the gathering where he was speaking in the Arctic Circle town of Salekhard. Presenters at that gathering, the International Arctic Forum, spoke in nearly the same ecological language as the protestors. State-owned companies and their multi-national partners are building major transport and energy facilities and expanding the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia.

PUTIN: (Through translator) All the more it is important when we speak about the Arctic, with its fragile and vulnerable ecosystems and sensitive climate, which to a large extent affect the environmental well-being of our planet.

FLINTOFF: Environmental protection was even the theme of a musical extravaganza that was performed for conference attendees.


FLINTOFF: This performance highlighted efforts to protect the culture of the Arctic's indigenous peoples. One thing that will challenge the fragile ecosystems, human and natural, is the sheer volume of tankers and other ships expected to go through the Northern Sea Route.

LAWTON BRIGHAM: The specter of having an accident in any one of those ships, including a large cruise ship in the Arctic with 12,000 people, should have everyone think again about how to protect not only people on the ships but the environment and the coastal communities.

FLINTOFF: That's Lawton Brigham, a professor of Arctic Policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and a retired Coast Guard officer. He says the key need now is for effective international standards and regulations for Arctic shipping, something that's already on the table among the circumpolar nations. That piece, while difficult, is likely to be easier than achieving regulation over resource development in the Arctic.

Every country has a stake in the enormously lucrative search for oil and gas in the Arctic. No one wants a catastrophic problem, but the pressure to go ahead is intense. Waste and pollution from reckless attempts at development in the past are evident on an island to the north of Salekhard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Biely Island, or White Island, is a natural habitat for polar bears.

FLINTOFF: In the Salekhard Museum, a guide takes visitors through an exhibition devoted to the history of development in the Russian Arctic, from indigenous peoples to the oil and gas production that's now the city's main activity. In the center of the hall is a sculpture made from rusted 55-gallon oil drums that have been carved into fish and animal shapes with an acetylene torch.

The guide explains that the drums are part of the industrial and military trash that had accumulated on White Island 60 or 70 years ago, from the period dating back to Stalin's time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: During only the period of 2013, 200 tons of such metal waste was taken away from this island.

FLINTOFF: Although the exhibit is designed to show how the Arctic can be cleaned of industrial waste, it also shows that injuries to the environment take a long time to heal. Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 29, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web introduction to this story incorrectly identified professor Lawton Brigham as retired.
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