With the recent announcement of its intentions to set up exploratory offshore oil drilling operations in the Arctic, BP (NYSE: BP) is set to embark into uncharted and hostile waters.

Polar bear hg By Hannes Grobe 21:16, 12 November 2006 (UTC), Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany (own work, POLARSTERN expedition ARK-VIII/2)The British media outlet, The Independent reports that last Friday BP signed a contract with Russia state-owned oil company Rosneft to explore oil deposits in the Kara Sea, north of Siberia.  Almost before the ink dried on the agreement environmental organizations from across the globe rose in outrage.

Greenpeace and the World Wind Fund for Nature stated they will establish campaigns to protest the agreement, vowing to confront BP's CEO Bob Dudley about the decision.  Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth labelled BP the world's "environmental villain number one."

The uproar from environmental groups surrounds the fact that BP will be plotting large drilling rigs in a region which is home to extraordinary biodiversity as well as some of the most perilous weather conditions.

Friends of the Earth's head of climate change, Mike Childs, said the sensitive geographic area, which has been relatively unexplored and is a habitat for several endangered species including polar bears, beluga whales, and walruses, should be left untouched by oil companies:  "The Arctic should be a no-go for fossil fuel extraction as it's one of the few pristine environments we have left."

He added, "It's very fragile and we should be looking at ways to protect it, not seemingly trying to find ways of wrecking it."

BP's environmental image and credibility could not be in worse condition after it was the facilitator of one of the worst oil spills in history.  Couple the fact the Gulf of Mexico oil spill happened less than a year ago and occurred during offshore drilling operations with the perilous waters and remote location of the Kara Sea and the potential environmental hazards seem abundant.  Has BP developed new safety protocols, or developed better emergency response plans to blow outs?

Even if it has, Dax Lovegrove, head of business and industry relations at WWF-UK, says emergency response will be even more difficult in the Arctic than it was in the Gulf: "Oil spill response plans in the Arctic are even less adequate than we saw in the Gulf of Mexico.  There is less infrastructure, like equipment to ring-fence oil spills and ships to skim off oil on the surface of the water."

BP has also announced this week that it will be exploring oil deposits off the coast of Australia for the first time in the company's history.  The Australian government approved four drilling permits for exploratory wells at depths up to 15,000 feet.