Many of the planet’s most diverse and ecologically important areas—including the Arctic and Virunga National Park in the Congo Basin—also happen to hold large underground deposits of oil and gas. Extracting these oil and gas deposits can result in lasting damage to the environment. Specifically, oil and gas exploration and development causes disruption of migratory pathways, degradation of important animal habitats, and oil spills—which can be devastating to the animals and humans who depend on these ecosystems.
Most easily accessible oil has already been developed. Today, oil and gas exploration is probing the Earth’s most remote and inhospitable places. It employs new and often unproven technologies to extract hydrocarbons from deep within the earth. Oil spills can occur from blowouts, pipeline leaks or failures, or shipping accidents. These spills pose a serious threat to ecosystems—whether they happen in the Congo Basin, the Timor Sea, or in the Arctic. Furthermore, in the Arctic, there is no proven, effective method to clean up oil in ice.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is located in one of the largest remaining natural areas on the planet: Alaska. The species that call the refuge home have been protected from the risks of unsustainable development for decades, but in 2017 Congress approved opening the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to allow for oil and gas drilling.
Oil and gas support vessels mean increased shipping in sensitive areas. Increased shipping means more noise that can mask communications for many species and increases the potential for collisions with marine mammals, especially whales. It also brings more pollution and a greater possibility of oil or fuel spills from a collision.
For oil and gas extraction to occur, especially in frontier areas like the Arctic, large-scale infrastructure would have to be constructed. The construction of roads, pipelines, and buildings could all negatively affect important animal habitat, migratory pathways, and biodiversity.
A penguin covered in oil from an oil spill off the coast of South Africa Robben Island, South Africa.
The same features that have helped keep the Arctic’s lands and waters mostly unspoiled—freezing temperatures, severe weather, and sea ice for half the year—are also what make cleaning up an oil spill difficult, if not impossible. Oil trapped under the sea ice cannot be cleaned up until the sea ice melts. Crews may be unable to reach the spill for months until weather clears, or their response ship may not be able to maneuver in the ice. An oil spill in arctic waters could devastate sea life and the cultural livelihoods of the indigenous people who depend on the ocean for subsistence.
Oil and gas operations could release many tons of harmful pollutants into the air and discharge dangerous chemicals into the water, thereby degrading the clean air and water that polar bears, whales, walrus—and humans—depend on for survival.
Whales and other marine mammals use sound to navigate, find mates, and find food in the often dark waters of the ocean. Seismic noises, like the air gun used by oil and gas companies to explore for oil offshore, can be deafening for these species. Excessive ocean noise from oil and gas exploration and drilling could cause injury, confusion, and even death.
Habitat Degradation and Destruction
The roads, pipelines, and other facilities built by oil companies as support infrastructure can degrade and destroy important habitat and interfere with the movement of migratory animals. In Africa, only 17% of the gorilla population currently lives in protected regions, and vast areas of gorilla forest have already been lost as oil and gas industries, along with logging companies, move into gorilla territory.
Interference with subsistence ways of life
Offshore oil exploration, drilling and production can disturb the fish and animals that are cornerstones of the subsistence and cultural livelihoods of indigenous people in the Arctic.
WWF advocates for responsible development in areas where oil and gas may occur. If development does transpire, WWF wants to ensure it is done as safely and responsibly as possible. Development must avoid areas considered especially sensitive. In some areas, like the Arctic, it is our one chance to do it right.
Influencing Oil Spill Response
WWF is member of the delegation for the Arctic Council Oil Spill Task Force. WWF is advocating for tighter standards for oil spill response in the Arctic.
Protecting Sensitive Areas from Development
WWF is identifying the most significant and sensitive places for both wildlife and indigenous peoples within areas targeted for oil development. In identifying these areas, we are looking at the places that indigenous people and communities depend on for food, resources, or that are important to their culture. We also use a tool called the Rapid Assessment of Circum-Arctic Ecosystem Resilience, or RACER for short. This tool lets WWF map areas that are uniquely resilient to climate change and should be protected.