Archive for June, 2012

The Open Arctic

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Everyone is preparing for an Arctic Ocean open for business at least through the summer months.

Seasonal shipping is increasing, and ports are growing, especially along the Russian coast.

The North Pole, April 2004: HMS Tireless, a nuclear sub, measured sea ice thickness of the melting ice cap (seaice.org.uk)

The Arctic rim countries – Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia and the US – are under some pressure to agree to a moratorium on exploiting the Arctic fisheries at least until enough is known about the ecosystem to do so sustainably.

Beluga whales feed on a school of Arctic cod (the dark streak), a species of potential commercial value but about which we know very little (arkive.org)

The tension over who if anyone owns any of the international waters in the huge center of the Arctic continue to grow, with Russia planning to reopen long closed Soviet bases, Canada considering using drones to monitor the region, and the US getting increasingly nervous about not having a vote in the UN negotiations concerning international boundaries.

The international water of the Arctic Ocean (red lin e)(oceansnorth.org)

Meanwhile China and South Korea are building icebreakers and intend to be players in the search for Arctic fish and other resources.

And then there are the oil companies.

The huge BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 is largely forgotten. Canada, the US and Norway are all inviting oil companies to bid for licenses to explore for oil and natural gas along their Arctic coastlines from Alaska and the Beaufort Sea to the Barents Sea. After a relentless, seven year campaign, Shell begins to drill on the Alaskan North Slope this summer, with Greenpeace watching closely. All the companies are eager to drill in international waters when that becomes possible.

Canada opens the Beaufort Sea for bids for drilling licenses

They are preparing to work in the cold, in darkness, in sea ice a long way from any supportive infrastructure. Still they claim development can be done sustainably.

In fact, nine of the major oil companies, including Statoil, Total, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell, have launched a research program where they will assess how spills flow in the Arctic, how to track them remotely, and how to recovery spilled oil. They will do this with ‘controlled’ spills.

Missing from this initiative are the Russian companies, Gazprom and Rosneft. No one seems confident that they will comply with regulations that the others accept. The Gazprom rig that capsized off Sakhalin last December, killing 50, is not reassuring.

Actually, no company is ready for offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, for no proven method for clean-up there exists.

Resistance to drilling has failed. The US sees the Arctic resources as part of its route to energy independence. Norway needs to replace its lucrative but depleted offshore southern oil fields with new northern ones. Canada wants to sell its resources to anyone who will buy them. Russia is Russia.

We hoped the rules of the game might be different in the Arctic as it opens up, based on all that we have learned over the past few decades. In fact they look exactly like they always have: power wins; the idea of endless economic growth remains unchallenged; resources exist to be exploited; environmental concerns are recognized and then largely ignored.

As elsewhere in our modern world, our response has become not to stop it, but at best to try to make it less bad.

At the least, a vigilant and activist press is increasingly critical – reminding us of past initiatives and failures, of the importance of evidence and precaution, and of the fragility and vulnerability of our natural world.

Walruses meet to debate the future of the Arctic Ocean (washingtonpost.com)

Return of the Law of the Sea

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

The US helped to create the the UN Law of the Sea in 1982, but has never ratified it (squidoo.com)

I started this series of blogs almost three years ago with a commentary on the Law of the Sea, ending with the hope that Senator Kerry, as the new Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would take the initiative and try to get Congress to finally ratify it.

Three years of silence. In that time, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Malawi and Switzerland have ratified it, bringing the total to 162 of the world’s nations. All industrialized nations have ratified it, and the US remains in the embarrassing company of Ethiopia, Burundi, Iran and North Korea.

All industrialized countries except the US have ratified the UN Law of the Sea (middlebury.edu)

Now, however, Senator Kerry has decided to bring it before the Foreign Relations Committee once again (it has been approved there once before). In support of it, the Committee will hear from the Secretary of State, the Defense Secretary, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oil companies and potential mining companies, various environmental organizations, and even the US Chamber of Commerce. Quite astonishing to see all of these on the same side of any issue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Foreign Relations Committee on May 23, 2012. Beside her are Secreatary of Defense Leon Panetta, and General Martin Demsey, Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (knoxnews.com)

Why now? Well, increasingly the US needs to be a legal player in the territorial negotiations that are underway in both the Arctic and the South China Sea. The stakes for the US in both regions are very high. It has no official vote, and anyway how can it push for enforcement of international laws that it hasn’t itself been able to ratify?

The Law of the Sea concerns so much that is of interest to the US – navigation rights, fisheries access, environmental protection, seabed-mining rights, prosecution of pirates like those of Somalia, as well as determination of territorial boundaries.

Refusal now to ratify the Law of the Sea will continue to embarrass the US, and will erode and destabilize emerging international agreements. The US loses authority, credibility, influence and certainly prestige while it remains unwilling to ratify the Law.

China claims most of the South China Sea, with resistance from four other nations, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. The US has growing interests in the region. (middlebury.edu)

So surely this time it will be ratified.

Dream on.

In the US Congress, the House of Representatives has already passed a bill refusing any funds for implementing the Law if it is ratified. Meanwhile, in the Senate – where any treaty needs to be passed by a 2/3 majority (67 votes) – 27 senators have already signed a letter pledging their opposition to the Law. Senator Kerry has agreed to delay any votes on the Law of the Sea until after the November election. This does not look hopeful

Shrill opposition, still easily found on the Internet, comes from those who think the Law would curtail US sovereignty, from those who hate and fear the UN, from those who believe the US should use its power to go its own way against the rest of the world, from those who believe the are two sets of rules – one for the US, one for everyone else.

The Law of the Sea assumes that the rule of law, based on negotiations and cooperation, is essential and valuable for all players. No one thinks the Law of the Sea is perfect, but it can evolve, as treaties do. The advantages of ratification for the US are overwhelming.

The US now has the another opportunity to regain some of its lost status, and to show some true leadership, with maturity and cooperation.

Failure to ratify the Law of the Sea is so dangerous.
We have so little time to try to get things right.