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 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.
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.
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.
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.