Posts Tagged ‘Arctic Council’

China in the Arctic

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

The Arctic is a tantalizing target for exploitation, even among non-Arctic nations. Not surprisingly, none have greater plans than China, even though its ports are a long way from the Arctic.

The Arctic Council seems to have the power to negotiate how the Arctic will be developed, and China wishes to be included. Voting members of the Council are the circumpolar nations: Canada, US, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark (via Greenland). But twelve other non-polar nations have now received observer status, six of them added at the recent May meeting, and among these are India, Japan, and China. Polar Aboriginal groups also have observer status, but no votes – unfortunate, but also hardly surprising.

China of course has a growing interest in the issues the Arctic Council is discussing. Shipping, for instance. The distance from Europe to China is far shorter through the Arctic Northeast Passage than any alternatives, and there is no threat of piracy en route as there has been around horn of Africa. The Northeast Passage is already open for months each summer, and an enticing seven month season is now likely.

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (

And then the gas and oil. Russia has access to huge natural gas sources close to shore along its central Arctic coast, where it is building new liquid natural gas facilities, along with associated port services. With the Northeast Passage open seven months a year, it need not build pipelines south but instead can fill Chinese tankers directly. China has invested deeply in the operation, intent on getting most of the available LNG.

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (

Meanwhile, in northern Greenland, near Nuuk, China has arranged to develop an extensive iron mine, planning to send about 3000 Chinese miners in to do the work. When the coasts open in summer, it will transport the iron ore to China.

What’s left? Oh yes: fishing. The international waters of the Arctic, the so-called Arctic donut hole, are likely to be a rich and irresistible source of fish. Though that’s 4000 km from Shanghai, China already sends trawlers 7500 km to the Antarctic to fish for krill, so the Arctic is well in range. Its trawlers will be there, as soon as possible.

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (

In late April, the circumpolar nations also met to try to agree on how to protect and regulate the Arctic fisheries. Prohibiting fishing there would be reasonable, for it will take decades, or longer, for the ecosystem to stabilize as it adapts to the prolonged open water, the warmer temperatures, the increasing acidification, the invasion of Subarctic species particularly through the Bering Strait, and the probable loss of some Arctic species.

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (

Will the international community agree wait to start fishing, or to exploit other resources? If so, that will be a first. What will stop them? The words of the recommendations of the Arctic Council read well. But what is the reality going to be?

International interest and pressure to develop the Arctic is immense. China of course is not the only major player – but it is new to this particular region, and it has become insatiable.

The outcome is increasingly clear. Without its ice, the Arctic has few defenses against ‘business-as-usual’ exploitation.

We’ll see what the Arctic Council will do under its new chair, the Canadian Indigenous politician Leona Aglukkaq. A political pragmatist and realist, Aglukkaq endorses the economic development of the Arctic.

China will be pleased.

Challenges for the Arctic Council

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

In the Arctic, the warming continues, despite the harsh winter of 2011 in much of North America: the extent of winter ice was less than the recent average once again, and the Great Melt continues. So what else is happening?

Arctic ice limits, winter 2011. The orange line represents the average extent of winter ice, 1977-2000. (

Time series of the extent of Arctic ice in 2011, compared with recent years. (

The Arctic Council meets this week at Nuuk, in Greenland, and an 8-nation treaty on search-and-rescue jurisdiction is going to be signed. This is, on one hand, an excellent step forward, as the nations agree who will have responsibility, and where, across the Arctic Ocean. The Globe and Mail has published a draft map of where the international boundaries will lie. Foreign Ministers from all but Canada will be there, including Hillary Clinton. Canada just lost its Foreign Minister in an election, and the health Minister Leona Aglukkaq will represent Canada: a nice little irony, as otherwise no aboriginal voice will be anywhere near the meeting.

A draft map of the international boundaries of jurisdiction for search-and-rescue responsibilities by nations sharing the Arctic Ocean (

On the other hand, almost all the contentious issues remain.

Who has rights to the extensive oil and gas everyone believes lie waiting to be tapped? All the participants signing the current treaty agree the boundaries they have drawn for search-and-rescue jurisdiction have little relationship with boundaries related to exploration and exploitation of gas and oil fields.

Oil companies, including Shell and Cairns, are extend their drilling in the Arctic, and you would think the memories of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the lessons learned, would ensure the best safety measures would be in place. They aren’t. The risks appear to be even greater. There will be spills in the Arctic Ocean, the pollution could be devastating, and there is little serious preparation in the works.

Who owns the shipping lanes? Does Canada own most of the Northwest Passage, and Russia almost all of the Northeast Passage? Canada and Russia assume so, but probably no one else does. China, South Korea and Japan all want a voice in such decisions, and are clamouring for at least observer status at Arctic Council meetings.

Fishing rights are barely on the table, yet the Arctic marine ecosystem is going to shift with the warming and the loss of ice. The moratorium of federal fishing in the US sector is helpful, and Canada appears to be about to do the same for the Beaufort Sea, but no international agreements yet exist.

The US has established a moratorium of ishing in Alaskan Arctic waters. (

The status of the US voice in all of this also remains ambiguous, for the US still has not ratified the UN Law of the Sea even though almost every other nation in the world has done so. Even the US military now wants that treaty ratified by the US, but fear of right wing criticism of anything related to the UN and to international treaties continues to prevent congressional action.

And what of the impact of the melting of the permafrost, the rising sea, and the other radical changes associated with the warming climate? What of the impending economic development of the Arctic? What of the Inuit communities ringing the Arctic? The absence of aboriginal representation raises familiar and disturbing questions.

Inuit cultures will soon be lost. Does it matter? (

So a little celebration could be called for – treaties like this are rare. But it is a very small step, and time is short.

Carving up the Arctic

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Who owns the Arctic?

Until the ice began to melt, this question did not grip us. Now, with the irresistible shipping, economic, and resource opportunities that are emerging with the prospect of a melted Arctic Ocean, everything has changed. And it looks like ‘Business as Usual‘, the one scanario of the near future that is most short-sighted.

The Arctic Ocean, semi-enclosed, unexploited, and about to change very rapidly. (

The five countries who have Arctic coastline – Russia, Canada, Denmark, USA and Norway – have sent in whatever they can to stake their claims, including navy ships, subs, and ice bound military maneuvers. Most of the boundaries stretching out to 200 miles from the coastlines have now been established, but critical issues remain.

The serious players in the game of 'Who Owns the Arctic' (

Of great concern, Russia, Canada and Denmark are all claiming parts of the remaining international High Seas centered over the North Pole. Making their claims possible is the Lomonosov Ridge. It extends from the continental shelf of Russia, across the North Pole, to the edge of the continental shelf of Canada and Denmark’s Greenland. All three countries claim this should extend their Exclusive Economic Zones far beyond the 200 mile limit, even as far as the North Pole. Like other irresolvable territorial disputes, this will eventually be settled by the International Court of Justice at The Hague, according to the principles of the UN Law of the Sea.

Russia believes it deserves most of the Arctic Ocean since it has populated and developed its Arctic coastline more than the other players have. (

Meanwhile the other three countries of the Arctic Council – Iceland, Sweden, Finland – demand to be included in discussions about ownership and development. So do the Inuit. And just in case we think the Arctic nations will somehow work this out by themselves, other countries are preparing to be involved. South Korea is building ice breakers. China is no doubt preparing as well.

At issue are rights to fisheries, whose future is unknown, and rights to oil and gas deposits that are expected to be immense. The stakes are high. Extensive drilling in the Arctic is a certainty. The current catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico should delay some of the planned exploration and drilling, and regulations are likely to be improved and even enforced. But the oil and gas will be exploited.

At the same time, international shipping will use the Northwest Passage. Existing seaports will grow, and new ones will be established. A whole new piece of the planet will be opened up to what we do best – exploitation and development.

Waiting to see what's going to happen. (

Still, there is another route we can follow, an alternative to uncontrolled and competitive growth and exploitation. Leaving the Arctic alone and untouched, ‘owned’ by no nation, is of course impossible, a dream of the impractical environmental idealist. Yet controlled, slow, careful, cooperative and responsible development and exploitation is possible. It need not be ‘Business as usual’.

And what an opportunity this is. Learning from the mountain of mistakes we have made over the past hundred years, we can treat the Arctic the way we should have treated the rest of the planet. We haven’t yet wrecked the place. We’re smart enough to know how to do it right.

Surely it isn’t too late. Yet.