Oil companies are overlooking some vital safety issues when preparing to drill in frontier Arctic areas, the head of the safety watchdog for the Norwegian oil industry said.
The Arctic is estimated to hold some 30 percent of the world's undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its untapped oil, which is leading energy firms to explore further north.
But exploring in this remote, cold region is risky, as Royal Dutch Shell most recently experienced when its Kulluk oil rig ran aground in Alaska on New Year's Eve in near hurricane conditions. Environmentalists have long said the Arctic's challenging conditions make it too risky to search for hydrocarbons. A spill, they say, would be near impossible to clean up.
Norway, the world's eighth-biggest crude exporter, is one of several Arctic nations opening vast swathes of northern offshore areas to oil companies, most of them so far ice-free and relatively accessible. But oil companies are also looking even further north to more difficult zones.
"There are several things that do not appear to be clearly on their agenda," Magne Ognedal, head of the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway, said in an interview.
"One of them is satellite coverage, which is so bad so far north that some say that you cannot navigate safely in these areas," he added.
"Polar low-pressure fronts are (also) difficult: a storm can form in half an hour. Suddenly you have a storm that you were not warned about, and what do you do? We need better weather warning systems."
A third issue is the lack of interest in predicting the edge of the polar ice cap, which changes in size with the seasons and the years, Ognedal suggested. Installations could be covered with ice or risk colliding with drifting icebergs.
"Where will the ice edge spread to? It could be that they (companies) do not need to care about that, because the ice and snow are melting," he said.
He cited Skrugard, Norway's northernmost oil discovery so far, situated some 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Europe.
"From a 10,000-year perspective, Skrugard is lying on the ice polar cap. It could be in 2014 or in 10,000 years, but there is a risk, and they need to factor that in."
NO CHANGE TO REGULATIONS
On other safety aspects, the industry is making good progress, including developing suitable clothing for staff to work outdoors in very cold temperatures, the regulator said.
Companies are also concerned about emergency preparedness - how to