Challenges and Opportunities in the Arctic – by Joseph F. C. DiMento, Hermanni Backer and Alexis Hickman

It is estimated that the Arctic Circle may hold 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of the undiscovered natural gas. Some see the Arctic as part of the answer to securing future energy supplies; if this is the case, then what are the risks?

By the end of this decade, the Arctic may be free of ice during the summer months.  This, and other effects of the changing climate, will have a number of potentially dramatic consequences to the region as a whole.  These include the recent opening of the Arctic to deep water drilling for oil and gas and the availability of other important natural resources, the promise of major new international trade routes, the ever increasing strategic military importance of the area, and, naturally, the implications such developments will have to the native human inhabitants and other forms of life. All these issues bring to the fore concern over the international community’s ability to manage the fragile environment of the Arctic. Is the existing framework adequate? What changes are advisable?

Among the most likely developments is a future increase in fossil fuel extraction in the high north. The United States, the Russian Federation, Norway and Canada are among the nations working on exploitation activities in various states of development. Some of the 19 geological basins making up the Arctic have already experienced oil and gas exploration.

According to estimates, one fifth of the world’s oil and gas resources are in the Arctic.  In 2008, the USGS (United States Geological Survey) estimated that areas north of the Arctic Circle may have 13% of the undiscovered oil in the world, 30% of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of the undiscovered natural gas liquids on Earth.  Most of these resources are offshore.

The environmental risks associated with new oil and gas extraction include operational and accidental pollution from activities at sea, as well as associated effects on land. The latter includes drawing of pipelines across tundra areas, from the Arctic shorelines to more densely populated parts of the world. Whilst the areas affected by such pipelines may be seen as ‘wasteland’ from the perspective of global metropoles, they can actually have great importance for the survival of local indigenous civilizations; as reindeer pasture for example.

The existing framework of international management of the Arctic is a cluster of policy and management initiatives, some of which go back several decades. The region is home to a number of multi-level governance systems that together comprise what some scholars call the expanding “Arctic regime complex.”

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) applies to the entire Arctic Basin and is in force in all of the Arctic states except for the United States, which itself recognizes the relevant provisions as customary international law.  Arctic nations control the exclusive economic zones, allowing them to govern the resources and activities in the water column and ocean surface; these can extend 200 nautical miles from the shore and are generally coextensive with the Continental Shelf (CS).    The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) makes recommendations on matters related to the limits of a nation’s CS.

Partly based on the work around the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy of 1991, the Ottawa Declaration established the Arctic Council in 1996 as a forum for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction in the region. It includes the governments of Canada, Russia, Denmark (covering also Greenland and Faroe Islands), Norway, the United States, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, and also, uniquely, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic: Athabaskan, Aleut, Gwich’in, Inuit, Sami and the 41 indigenous peoples in Russia represented by the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON). In addition, some near Arctic states including China, some members of the European Union, Japan and South Korea are lobbying for permanent observer status.

With major climate and geo political changes in the region, the Council has evolved from a fairly obscure international organization to one of increasing importance in Arctic governance. In 2011, the United States entered the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement – the first binding treaty concluded under the Council’s auspices. That same year, at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Nuuk, Ministers mandated that a task force should prepare an international instrument on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

In addition to the Arctic Council, discussions on Arctic issues are also taking place in other international fora, including the Spitsbergen Treaty cooperation, the North Atlantic Coastguard Forum, and the Conference of the Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region.  The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is also in the process of developing a draft international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters (the ‘Polar Code’).  In addition, various nations are also currently involved in implementing domestic laws addressing certain management issues for their parts of the Arctic.

Many scholars and policymakers are not sanguine about the adequacy of the existing Arctic governance system, and call into question the effectiveness of the embryonic regime. In the ongoing developments associated with Arctic cooperation, lessons may be learned from the successes, and failures, of efforts in other great seas. The recently published Environmental Governance of the Great Seas: Law and Effect (Joseph F.C. DiMento and Alexis Hickman, with chapters on the Baltic by H. Backer and on the Mediterranean by T. Scovazzi) provides a unique insight into the variety of approaches tested.

The Arctic interest in approaches tested in other regions is illustrated in particular by the work undertaken for the Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response regime, initiated in 2011 in Nuuk. During the ongoing negotiations, the Baltic cooperation on oil pollution preparedness and response under the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) has been offered as a good example to follow. Since the signing of the Helsinki Convention in 1974, the nine coastal countries of the Baltic have managed to foster mutual trust, and with it create an operational regional response system, where information on accidents and response capacity itself is shared with a minimum delay; this is also tested annually in regional HELCOM Balex Delta oil response exercises. Importantly, the cooperation has also fostered a framework of financial rights and obligations related to such provision of international assistance.

The findings of Environmental Governance of the Great Seas underscore the essential role of cooperation among nations who share both economic, but also environmental protection interests. The case studies highlight the need to build upon the significance and governance potential of the primary legal framework, the Law of the Sea regime, but also to support the regional dimension, through for example work carried out within regional commissions participating in the United Nations Regional Seas Programme.

It seems timely now to selectively and judiciously add new international law to the Arctic governance cluster. The future may see an agreement on a high seas protocol, spelling out environmental protection obligations in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Thus, increasing activity in the Arctic is naturally a major challenge to the region, but it can also be seen an opportunity. It can perhaps also bring with it greater global visibility to Arctic problems, as well as more accountable and robust international legal regimes, based on the successes and failures in other parts of the world.

Professor Joseph F. C. DiMento has written 10 books and taught courses on a wide variety of subjects, including urban and regional planning, domestic and international environmental law, administrative law and regulation, business and government, conflict resolution.

Professor DiMento is also the director of UC Irvine’s Newkirk Center for Science and Society, established in May 2001 with the goal of improving science’s response to community needs and to increase the effective uses of scientific results for the benefit of society.

Alexis Hickman is currently a Postdoctoral Associate at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics researching the greening of global supply chains and increased sustainability for logistics operations in major cities.  Dr. Hickman received her Ph.D. in Planning, Policy and Design and Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of California, Irvine. She received her B.A. at the University of California, Santa Barbara in Global Studies.   Her doctoral studies focused on environmental governance at the national and international levels and continues to be a main research focus.

Hermanni Backer is currently working as the Professional Secretary of the Helsinki Commission responsible for groups related to Maritime activities and Oil response. Over the last ten years he has been working with, and published on, various aspects of marine environmental policy, science and law -including ecosystem approach and marine spatial planning. During 2011-2012 he coordinated the Plan Bothnia project -a trans-boundary Sweden-Finland maritime spatial planning pilot in the Baltic Sea.

He has completed a M.Sc. in marine ecology and a LL.M in Public International Law, works in English and French in addition to his native Finnish and Scandinavian (Swedish, Norwegian & Danish) and enjoys sailing during the short summers of northern Europe.

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