Drilling for oil in the Arctic should be stopped until there are stronger protections against spills which could devastate the environment, MPs said today.
An internationally recognised nature sanctuary should also be established to protect at least part of the Arctic before any more exploration takes place, the Environmental Audit Committee said.
Clearing up a spill in the icy waters of the Arctic would be extremely difficult, with the methods for responding to an accident not conclusively proved to work in the extreme conditions.
An oil spill could be "devastating" for wildlife if a blow-out occurred just before the Arctic winter closed in, preventing efforts to stop the leak until the following summer, the committee's chairwoman Joan Walley said.
A report from the committee on the Arctic comes as data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre shows ice cover has melted to a record low this summer, with sea ice extending to just over half the minimum area covered on average over past decades.
The MPs said the general view that the Arctic is not at risk of a collapse in the ice cap in summer in the next few years needs to be reviewed.
Collapse of the ice cap would lead to further warming of the Arctic, be disastrous for wildlife and could damage regional and global climate, their report said.
The MPs heard evidence that the UK's climate is already being affected by temperature rises in the Arctic, warming more slowly than continental Europe because large ocean currents are slowing, bringing less heat to the UK from the Gulf Stream.
Although there are already more proven fossil fuel reserves than can be burnt if the world is to cut emissions sufficiently to avoid dangerous climate change, the melting in the Arctic is opening it up for the exploration for more oil and gas.
The report accused the Government of a lack of coherence in not addressing how future oil and gas extracted from the Arctic could be reconciled with keeping temperature rises to no more than 2C, urging ministers to resolve the issue.
Given the heightened risks of drilling in the Arctic - which is already taking place - because of the extreme conditions, the MPs are calling for a moratorium on oil exploration until steps are taken to tighten up the safeguards.
They include putting in a pan-Arctic standard for the response to an oil spill and stricter financial liability rules that require companies to prove they can meet the costs of a cleaning up a disaster.
The MPs also want an oil and gas industry group set up to peer-review companies' oil spill plans and report publicly on them and for more independent research and testing on techniques to be carried out, with environmental side-effects tested.
Ms Walley said: "The oil companies should come clean and admit that dealing with an oil spill in the icy extremes of the Arctic would be exceptionally difficult.
"The infrastructure to mount a big clean-up operation is simply not in place and conventional oil spill response techniques have not been proven to work in such severe conditions."
With drilling only feasible in the Arctic during a short summer window, she said: "We heard compelling evidence that if a blow-out occurred just before the dark Arctic winter returned, it may not be possible to cap it until the following summer, potentially leaving oil spewing out under the ice for six months or more with devastating consequences for wildlife."
Shell recently announced that it was halting efforts to drill in the Arctic this year, but will resume exploration in 2013.
In response, John Sauven Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, said: "As Shell are painfully learning, the future doesn’t lie in sucking up the last drops of oil and gas in the most extreme and inhospitable parts of the world like the Arctic. The future lies with investing in clean renewable energy that can provide the power needed to supply our homes and industries without destroying the planet.”
The MPs are urging the UK Government to use its position as an observer state on the Arctic Council, a key means of co-operation between the eight Arctic state and observer countries, to push for a moratorium until safeguards are in place.
New fisheries should be managed sustainably and environmental standards should be put in place for shipping routes opening up as the Arctic melts, the MPs said.
Green MP Caroline Lucas, a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, said the race to carve up the Arctic was accelerating faster than the regulatory or technical capacity to manage it.
"The Arctic oil rush is bringing unprecedented risks to the area, and it's now clear that the consequences of any potential spill would be catastrophic.
"The UK Government now has a responsibility to respond to this EAC report and show vital leadership on the issue by doing all it can to urgently secure a moratorium on Arctic drilling, starting with companies registered in this country."
Vicky Wyatt, head of Greenpeace's Arctic campaign, said: "Oil giants like Shell shouldn't be drilling in the fragile and pristine Arctic.
"By calling for a halt, these MPs have hit the nail on the head. An oil spill in this unique place would be catastrophic for the Arctic."
She said investors would be questioning the wisdom of investing in Shell, whose "pricey polar palaver" this year had seen it spend billions of pounds exploring in the Arctic with nothing to show for it.
She backed the MPs' calls for an internationally protected sanctuary in the Arctic.Suggest a correction