Environmental groups here are urging an international global warming awareness project to sever its ties with a U.S. government agency's effort to map oil reserves in the Arctic, saying the information the Americans gather could help oil companies seeking to drill in the pristine region.
The environmentalists say encouraging more consumption of oil will only help drive up world temperatures, exactly the opposite of what the International Polar Year project should be trying to do.
"Under the auspices of the (International Polar Year), to go out and prospect for fossil fuels, to put it politely — it seems ironic if not deeply misjudged," Samantha Smith, director of the WWF conservation group's Arctic program, said Friday.
The polar year project, scheduled for 2007-2008, is aimed at increasing scientists' understanding of the environment at the north and south poles. Rising temperatures are having a big impact on both regions, so climate change is an important aspect of the research.
British agency OK with U.S.
The project, which includes more than 200 studies, last year conditionally accepted the U.S. Geological Survey's mapping effort as part of its research program, said Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey and a board member of the committee running the polar year. The committee is likely to give final approval for the U.S. survey's involvement soon, he said.
Rapley said the U.S. Arctic survey program — part of a long-term American effort to map out untapped oil reserves around the world — would provide valuable scientific information that could help those trying to understand climate change and figure out how to combat and anticipate it.
The information it gathers would probably be of only limited use to oil companies seeking new reserves, he said.
"What's come forward is a project to assess how much hydrocarbon resources there might be in the Arctic with a view to (helping) policymakers, thinkers, planners, climate-change experts" plan for the world's energy needs and work on ways to combat climate change, he said. "That's just the sort of thing the (polar year) is about."
He said the project would also provide geological data about the Arctic that would help scientists better understand the environment there. Among other things, it could uncover details about the presence of a substance called methane clathrate which is trapped under the Arctic surface and eventually could be released into the atmosphere and make global warming more extreme, he said.
Suspicion runs deep
Tony Juniper, British director of Friends of the Earth, disagreed, saying the U.S. survey was mainly about facilitating oil drilling in the Arctic.
"Seeking out new oil and gas deposits under the guise of an environmental initiative must be challenged by all right-thinking scientists who wish to use their profession for the greater good of the Earth rather than simply for a cloak under which the oil industry can advance its interests," he said.
"We're already approaching a critical threshold of global warming ... and the seeking out of further oil and gas deposits is going to make that problem worse," he said.
Suzanne Weedman, a senior adviser at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the agency's Arctic mapping project began in 2001 as part of a long-term effort to study oil and gas reserves around the world. The agency applied in 2004 or 2005 to affiliate some of its Arctic work with the International Polar Year because its scientists were gathering information they believed would help others to better understand the Arctic environment, she said.