February 1, 2011 / 4:45 PM / in 7 years

BP, Russia oil plans encroach on Arctic parks-WWF

* Drill plans threaten polar bear breeding ground

* Licences violate 45 square km of nature reserves

* Oil majors say area may hold 60 billion barrels of oil

By Alissa de Carbonnel

MOSCOW, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Ambitious Arctic drilling plans by oil giant BP (BP.L) and Russia encroach upon key nature reserves, threatening native polar bear and whale populations, an environmental group said on Tuesday.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said a deal last month allowing BP and Russian state-run major Rosneft (ROSN.MM) access to untapped reserves in the Kara Sea violated the boundaries of two Russian national parks in one of the world’s last true wildernesses.

The conservation group says the area licensed to the oil majors for exploration through to 2040 by the Russian government snips off some 45 square kilometres (17 square miles) of protected land.

A WWF map shows the Novaya Zemlya archipelago enclosing the Kara Sea to the North and the Yamal Peninsula jutting into the sea’s southern shore could be threatened by the drilling.

“Surely we are not so desperate for oil that we will tear down the boundaries of protected areas to get it,” Aleksey Knizhnikov of WWF-Russia said in a statement.

“These protected areas are now in peril. The natural values they were set up to protect -- pristine ecosystems, the seabirds, the polar bears, the marine mammals -- are in jeopardy,” he added.

BP said the two oil majors “believe that we can carry out this exploration programme safely and responsibly,” a spokesman for BP in Russia said by telephone.

    “Lessons learned from the Gulf of Mexico incident and spill will be carried through to this project,” he added.

    The two oil majors say the three Kara Sea blocks could contain oil reserves equal to the volumes of the UK North Sea, meaning a lucrative catch of around 60 billion barrels.

    But in the wake of BP’s catastrophic leak in the Gulf of Mexico this spring, experts warn the damage from drilling in the fragile Arctic ecosystem or oil leaks under the ice could be far worse than in warmer deepwater climates.

    The Russian Arctic park, designated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Novaya Zemlya in 2009, is one of the most important breeding grounds for polar bears, a year-round haven for walrus and home to the rare narwhal and Greenland whale, according to the Russian ministry of natural resources.

    WWF activists urged the Russian government to pause oil and gas exploration in the fragile Arctic until strict regulations and preventive measure are put in place to protect the region’s wildlife and fauna.

    “Parking oil rigs beside protected areas is definitely not going to help,” Alexander Shestakov, director of the WWF’s Global Arctic Programme, said in the statement.

    “In the light of the climate driven changes in this region, and across the Arctic, we need to be looking at ways in which we can help Arctic animals and peoples transition to a new and very different reality.”

    The Russian government, a majority shareholder in Rosneft, gets more than 50 percent of its revenues from oil and gas and Putin’s stated aim is to keep producing more than 10 billion barrels a day through 2020. (Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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