* Eight-nation Arctic Council drafts oil spill plans
* Guidelines avoid details such as corporate liability
* Greenpeace says document vague, fails to address risks
OSLO, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Arctic nations' plans to start
cooperating over oil spills are vague and fail to define
companies' liability for any accidents in an icy region opening
up due to global warming, environmentalists said on Monday.
A 21-page document by the eight-nation Arctic Council, seen
by Reuters and due to be approved in May, says countries in the
region "shall maintain a national system for responding promptly
and effectively to oil pollution incidents."
It does not say what that means in terms of staff, ships,
clean-up equipment or corporate liability in a remote region
that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates has 13 percent of the
world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas.
The countries have drafted the document as companies
including Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips,
Lukoil and Statoil are looking north for oil despite
high costs and risks. Shell's Kulluk oil rig ran aground in
Alaska on Dec. 31 in near hurricane conditions.
"The document doesn't get to grips with the risks of a spill
in a meaningful way," said Ruth Davis of Greenpeace, which
passed the document to Reuters. Officials confirmed the text was
Greenpeace, which wants the Arctic to be off-limits to
drilling, said it was "so vaguely written as to have very little
practical value in increasing the level of preparedness."
"We should be far beyond this rudimentary document," echoed
Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant and former professor
at the University of Alaska often critical of the oil industry.
He said the Council should put more stress on preventing spills.
The Arctic Council - comprising the United States, Russia,
Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark including
Greenland - sees cooperation as big progress for the region,
where sea ice shrank to a record low in the summer of 2012.
"There will be a lot of improvements compared to today -
quite simply by making it much easier for countries in the
Arctic to help each other when needed," said Karsten Klepsvik,
polar expert at Norway's foreign ministry until end-2012.
The document, for instance, sets up 24-hour emergency
contacts in the eight nations, seeks national rules to allow
quick transport of clean-up equipment across maritime borders,
better monitoring and joint training exercises.
Environment ministers from the Arctic Council will meet in
Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, on Feb. 5-6 to discuss the draft.
The Arctic document makes clear it is non-binding, except
for repayment of costs when one country helps another. It says
it is "subject to the capabilities of the parties and the
availability of relevant resources."
Global warming is making the Arctic region more accessible
to shipping, mining and oil exploration. Oil spills could be
extremely hard to clean up, perhaps trapped in or under ice that
can be carried across international boundaries by ocean currents
In 2011, Arctic Council foreign ministers including outgoing
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed a plan for search
and rescue - a prelude to harder work on defining rules for oil
The document says it will apply a general principle that the
polluter pays, but does not define corporate liability. Steiner
said Arctic-wide unlimited liability would make companies and
insurers more cautious.
"Greenland suggested that we should include a system of
liability in the agreement. There was no agreement on this,"
Klepsvik said. "We are a consensus body. We realised that it
would take years and years to reach a conclusion" on liability.
And he said big oil companies showed they do pay for damage.
BP Plc had paid $23 billion in costs and claims by late
2012 after its 2010 blow-out in the Gulf, the worst offshore
spill in U.S. history.
Exxon Mobil says it paid more than $4.3 billion
after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground just south of the
Arctic in 1989, spilling more than 250,000 barrels.
(Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)