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Attention to the Cold Arctic Heats Up

September 16, 2011


Last December I wrote about the attention that the so-called Northwest Passage is receiving now that climate change has made that passage accessible for more months of the year (see Supply Chains and the Northwest Passage). More recently, I wrote about the increased international attention that is being given to potential Arctic riches that are becoming more accessible (see Search for Resources at the Top of the World). The U.S. Navy has certainly taken notice of what is happening in the Arctic. The Navy’s chief oceanographer, Rear Admiral David Titley, who is also the director of the Navy’s task force for climate change, recently stated, “In the past, the Arctic was largely inaccessible, but increased seasonal melting of the sea ice is opening the region and creating opportunities for oil and gas exploration, maritime shipping, commercial fishing and tourism. We are confronted by a new ocean for the first time in 500 years.” [“Amid melting ice, Navy assesses strategic demands in Arctic,” by Geoff Ziezulewicz, Stars and Stripes, 17 August 2011]


Another member of the Navy’s climate change task force, Commander Blake McBride, whose specific job is analyzing Arctic affairs, explained why the region is of such interest to the Navy. He said, “With Alaska’s coastline, the U.S. can lay claim to roughly 200 thousand square miles of territorial and exclusive economic zone waters.” This is no small matter since China wants to maintain the Arctic as an international resource and is pressing that position hard in international organizations. Ziezulewicz reports that the Navy began a five-year study of its “Arctic Roadmap” back in 2009. He also reports that Naval leaders are concerned about increased operational commitments in the region because the area is vast, has no supporting shore infrastructure, lacks dedicated logistical support, involves unreliable communications systems, and seasonal icing can compromise sensors and weapon systems.


Ziezulewicz further reports that politicians are taking notice of what is happening in the region. He notes that, during a July hearing on the emerging Arctic Ocean, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said, “The fact that the U.S. is an Arctic nation is one that, in the past, has gone unrecognized by much of the American public due to Alaska’s separation and distance from the contiguous 48 states. But that is changing — and the Arctic is changing.”


The U.S. Navy is not the only military group paying close attention to the Arctic. Last year Norway moved “its military command centre 1,000km north from its former location” to highlight “the rising strategic stakes in the Arctic amid predictions that global warming will unlock icebound resources and shipping routes.” [“Battle hots up for Arctic resources,” by Andrew Ward, Financial Times, 4 July 2011] Ward continues:

“Norway is not the only country turning its military’s attention to the frozen north. Russia’s defence ministry announced plans last week to create two army brigades to defend its polar territory, and Canada is sending more than 1,000 troops to the region in August for its biggest Arctic military exercise yet. The build-up is fuelling fears of conflict in a region estimated to hold up to a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.”

The news is not all bad from the region. Norwegian and Russian leaders actually decreased regional tensions by settling a four decades-old dispute over oil rights. Ward reports:

“The two countries last year ended a four-decade dispute involving 175,000 sq km of the Barents Sea by agreeing to split the contested area in half. The pact was ratified [in June] and [came] into force [in July], clearing the way for each country to start exploring for oil and gas in their respective zones.”

Christian Le Mière, a research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Ziezulewicz, “There’s greater willingness now to discuss [Arctic] issues more openly, which should help negotiations.” Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway’s foreign minister, apparently agrees with Le Mière’s assessment. He told Ward, “There is no issue in the north where the military provides the ultimate answer, and there is no challenge for Norway in the north for which Russia must not be part of the solution.” Economically, the area’s vast resources may be the focus of discussion. Strategically, however, Le Mière insists that “the value of an open Arctic lies in the emerging trade routes, and who controls those is key.” Bernard Simon agrees with that assessment. He writes:

“The transformation of the once inaccessible north is raising tricky strategic, legal and logistical issues, especially for the five nations – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US – with jurisdiction over all the Arctic’s land and much of its water. Indigenous people of the area also face wrenching economic and social changes to their already threatened traditional way of life.” [“The Arctic: Through icy waters,” Financial Times, 18 August 2011]

Michael Byers, an international law professor at the University of British Columbia, agrees with Støre and Le Mière that the intense new focus on the Arctic seems to have produced more cooperation than confrontation. He told Simon, “At the moment there’s an extraordinary amount of co-operation. That does give me some optimism.” Byers did, however, add a note of caution. “It is possible,” he told Simon, “that this move towards co-operation could be derailed. From time to time, the politicians of Arctic countries, most notably Russia and Canada, seek to mislead their publics by reaching for old nationalist symbols and sentiments concerning Arctic sovereignty. The contrast between what is said in public and what happens in private is sometimes quite stark.”


Much of Simon’s article is focused on trade routes that could be opened if climate change continues to reduce the ice pack that normally prevents ship movements in the region. He reports, “The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to succeed … in threading his way through the North-West Passage. In the first 100 years after Amundsen’s 1906 voyage, just 69 vessels followed in his wake. Yet the same number completed the trip in the five years from 2006 to 2010, not counting numerous private mega-yachts that are thought to have followed one of several routes now free of ice during the summer months.” Simon continues:

“The long coast of northern Siberia has become even busier. In 2009 Russian authorities began to charge fees on vessels using the northern route to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific. With the ice cap receding, ship operators are now eyeing an even more northerly route across the North Pole that would shave as much as 7,000km off the existing sailing distance between Rotterdam and Tokyo via the Suez Canal. Two German cargo vessels, helped by icebreakers, completed the short polar voyage in 2009.”

Simon reports that it may take as long as twenty years before these routes are used extensively. The reason, he writes, is that even though the routes may become more accessible, “the Arctic remains an inhospitable environment, marked not only by severe cold and months of darkness but far away from search and rescue facilities and other amenities. Icebergs and high insurance costs will also make shipowners think twice.” Despite such challenges, Simon report that interests remain high in the area, primarily for the “vast untapped resources” that experts believe lie beneath the region. Simon reports:

“The US Geological Survey, a government agency, estimates 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and almost a third of natural gas deposits lie under the Arctic. Several western European energy companies have eyed acquisitions and joint ventures in northern Russia as a way of gaining access to untapped oil and gas reserves. For example, BP earlier this year tried but eventually failed to acquire a stake in Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil producer, which has extensive interests in the region. Elsewhere, a bidding war erupted last winter for a big iron ore deposit being developed south of Pond Inlet on Canada’s Baffin Island, about 700km north of the Arctic Circle. ArcelorMittal, the steelmaker, ended up paying $590m for a 70 per cent stake.”

Last month it was announced that “ExxonMobil has formed an Arctic exploration partnership with Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, in a strategic coup over rival BP. In return, Exxon, the world’s largest oil company by market capitalization, will give the state-controlled Russian group minority stakes in projects in the US Gulf of Mexico, in onshore fields in Texas and elsewhere.” [“Exxon and Rosneft sign Arctic deal,” by Isabel Gorst, Charles Clover, and Ed Crooks, Financial Times, 30 August 2011] Not everyone is thrilled with how things are developing. “Marilyn Heiman, director of the U.S. Arctic Program at the Pew Environment Group, the conservation arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts, cautions that the energy industry is moving faster to start drilling than most countries are moving to craft appropriate regulations for the region. ‘The Arctic is one of the most dangerous places to drill in the world and we need to have standards in place to prevent oil spills,’ said Ms. Heiman.” [“Arctic Riches Lure Explorers,” by Russell Gold, Wall Street Journal, 1 September 2011] Simon also reports that “fish from the Arctic are set to emerge as a huge resource, but also a potential source of friction.” He explains:

“Experts predict mass migration of marine life to warming Arctic waters, coupled with the growing shortage of fish elsewhere, will attract trawlers from Japan, South Korea and China, among others. ‘The barriers to commercial fishing are falling pretty rapidly,’ says Scott Highleyman, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ international Arctic program, based in Bellingham, Washington state. Trawlers could appear around the Chukchi Plateau, north-west of Alaska, within the next five years, he predicts. A Chinese vessel has already conducted marine research in the area. Michel Rocard, a former French prime minister and now the country’s ambassador for polar affairs, foresees ‘a splendid conflict’ between coastal states and non-Arctic fishing nations. The US closed its Arctic waters to industrial fishing in late 2009. Pew, among others, is now urging Canada, Russia and the US to spearhead a multilateral agreement that would limit fishing in international waters, stretching over an area the size of the Mediterranean Sea. Such a pact would underline the international collaboration that has so far marked the opening up of the Arctic.”

Russia would undoubtedly like to limit fishing in the area, but its past operating practices may put pressure on its leaders to be more open. Russia, Japan and Korea have a history of operating huge fishing fleets centered on factory ships that have been blamed for depleting global fish stocks. Professor Byers, however, is optimistic that agreements will be reached. “The Arctic is not a wild west zone,” he told Simon. “It’s not a place of conflict or threat of conflict.” At least not right now. Simons reports, “The only land in dispute in the region is a tiny uninhabited island off Greenland claimed by both Denmark and Canada. Prof Byers dismisses this dispute and Russia’s much-publicized move in 2007 to plant a flag in the seabed far below the North Pole as ‘mostly domestic political noise’.” Domestic politics, however, should not be so easily dismissed. A lot of dumb things have been done in the name of domestic politics. Simon apparently agrees. He writes:

“The pursuit of national interest is never far below the surface. Canada, with tacit support from Denmark, has blocked an application by the European Union for permanent observer status on the council because of the EU’s stand against seal hunting, a staple of indigenous communities. … Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, has made the Arctic a signature issue since his Conservative party took office in 2006, repeatedly asserting that ‘we either use it or lose it’. The Tories’ campaign platform in last year’s election asserted: ‘Canada’s north is at the heart of our Canadian identity … Our presence in Canada’s north is also an increasingly important factor in defending our national sovereignty’.”

In what could be an even more troubling development, “Arctic nations are also pushing to expand their offshore economic zones beyond the 200-mile limit traditionally recognized under international law.” Simon explains:

“Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allows states to claim rights up to 350 miles offshore if the geology of the seabed indicates a ‘natural prolongation’ of the continental shelf. Applications are vetted by a group of scientists. Norway has already secured an extension, Russia has applied for one and Canada is preparing an application. Mr Byers predicts that some of the claims could overlap.”

The reason that cooperation rather than conflict currently rules the day is that exploitation of open passages and accessible resources hasn’t really begun in earnest. Once that happens, things are likely to heat up. The hope is that the current spirit of cooperation will help generate solutions to potential problems before they emerge. Prevention, in this case like most other cases, is better than a cure.

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