Tag Archives: Arctic Council

Fish, Gas and Minerals: the Arctic

Mr Xi has been showing a growing interest in Arctic countries. In 2014 he revealed in a speech that China itself wanted to become a “polar great power”..,,In January 2018 the Chinese government published its first policy document outlining its Arctic strategy.

China is also keen to tap into the Arctic resources that will become easier to exploit as the ice cap retreats. They include fish, minerals, oil and gas. The region could hold a quarter of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered hydrocarbons, according to the United States Geological Survey. Chinese firms are interested in mining zinc, uranium and rare earths in Greenland.

As the ice melts, it may become more feasible for cargo ships to sail through Arctic waters. China is excited by this possibility (its media speak of an “ice silk road”). In the coming decades such routes could cut several thousand kilometres off journeys between Shanghai and Europe. Sending ships through the Arctic could also help to revive port cities in China’s north-eastern rustbelt… China is thinking of building ports and other infrastructure in the Arctic to facilitate shipping. State-linked firms in China talk of building an Arctic railway across Finland.

Chinese analysts believe that using Arctic routes would help China strategically, too. It could reduce the need to ship goods through the Malacca Strait, a choke-point connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Much of China’s global shipping passes through the strait. It worries endlessly about the strait’s vulnerability to blockade—for example, should war break out with America.

There are no heated territorial disputes in the Arctic, but there are sensitivities, including Canada’s claim to the North-West Passage, a trans-Arctic waterway that America regards as international—ie, belonging to no single state.

Plenty of non-Arctic countries, including European ones, have similar dreams. But China is “by far the outlier” in terms of the amount of money it has pledged or already poured into the region, says Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand. Its biggest investments have been in Russia, including a gas plant that began operating in Siberia in December 2017. Russia was once deeply cynical about China’s intentions. But since the crisis in Ukraine it has had to look east for investment in its Arctic regions.

The interest shown by Chinese firms could be good news for many Arctic communities. Few other investors have shown themselves willing to stomach the high costs and slow pay-offs involved in developing the far north…. The main concern of Arctic countries is that China’s ambitions will result in a gradual rewiring of the region’s politics in ways that give China more influence in determining how the Arctic is managed. Greenland is a place to watch. Political elites there favour independence from Denmark but resist taking the plunge because the island’s economy is so dependent on Danish support. The prospect of Chinese investment could change that. Should Greenland become independent, China could use its clout there to help further its own interests at meetings of Arctic states, in the same way that it uses its influence over Cambodia and Laos to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations from criticising Chinese behaviour in their neighbourhood.

Excerpts from The Arctic: A Silk Road through Ice, Economist, Apr. 14, 2018, at 37

The Arctic through China’s Eyes

China on  January 25, 2018 outlined its ambitions to extend President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming.  Releasing its first official Arctic policy white paper, China said it would encourage enterprises to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages, paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road”…China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013.

Among its increasing interests in the region is its major stake in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project which is expected to supply China with four million tonnes of LNG a year.

Shipping through the Northern Sea Route would shave almost 20 days off the regular time using the traditional route through the Suez Canal. COSCO Shipping has also previously sailed vessels through the Arctic’s northeast passage.

China’s increasing prominence in the region has prompted concerns from Arctic states over its long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployment…The white paper said China also eyes development of oil, gas, mineral resources and other non-fossil energies, fishing and tourism in the region. China’s Belt and Road initiative aims to connect China to Europe, the Middle East and beyond via massive infrastructure projects across dozens of countries…

Excerpts from China unveils vision for ‘Polar Silk Road’ across Arctic, Reuters, Jan. 25, 2018

The Claim of Denmark on the Arctic

Arctic Ocean bathymetric features.  Image from wikipedia

In 2007 a Russian-led polar expedition, descending through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean in a Mir submarine, planted a titanium Russian tricolour on the sea bed 4km (2.5 miles) beneath the North Pole… Over the next few years the Arctic Council (a talking shop for governments with territories inside the Arctic Circle, and others who attend as observers) became much more influential and one of the few remaining border disputes there (between Norway and Russia) was settled.

Now Denmark has staked a claim to the North Pole, too. On December 15th it said that, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), some 900,000 square kilometres of the Arctic Ocean north of Greenland belongs to it (Greenland is a self-governing part of Denmark). The timing was happenstance. Claims under UNCLOS have to be made within ten years of ratification—and the convention became law in Denmark on December 16th 2004. But its claim conflicts with those of Russia, which has filed its own case under UNCLOS, and (almost certainly) Canada, which plans to assert sovereignty over part of the polar continental shelf (see map).

The prize for these countries is the mineral wealth of the Arctic, which global warming may make more accessible. Temperatures in the region are rising at twice the rate of the rest of the Earth. According to the United States Geological Survey, the area has an eighth of the world’s untapped oil and perhaps a quarter of its gas….

The melting of the summer sea ice has also opened up trade routes between Asia and Europe via the top of the world; 71 cargo ships plied the north-east passage last summer, up from 46 in 2012. And trade requires rules. Moreover, under UNCLOS, most of the known energy and mineral reserves are within countries’ 200-nautical mile economic zones anyway. So everyone has an interest in minimising conflicts and amicably settling those that crop up.

But… in the summer of 2014 it carried out extensive combat exercises in the Arctic for the first time since the end of the cold war. It is re-equipping old Soviet bases there and in July tested the first of its new-generation rockets, called the Angara, from a cosmodrome in the high north. Sweden spent part of the summer searching for a Russian submarine that it suspected of slipping into its territorial waters.

Denmark’s claim will test whether Russia is willing to stick to the rules in the Arctic. It is based on a provision of the law of the sea which says countries may control an area of seabed if they can show it is an extension of their continental shelf. (Denmark argues that the Lomonosov ridge, which bisects the Arctic, starts in Greenland.) All Arctic countries, Russia included, have promised to respect this law.

Excerpts, The Arctic: Frozen conflict, Economist, Dec. 20, 2014, at 89

Dividing the Arctic

Hans Island (dispute between Denmark and Canada).  Image from wikipedia

Singapore has applied for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council. This is made up of the eight states that have territory within the Arctic circle: the United States, Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroes), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. But Singapore sits at the equator, as far from either pole as it is possible to be. How can it be interested?

The answer is that in 2012, as the summer ice melted, 46 ships sailed through Arctic waters, according to Arctis, a research group, mostly from Far Eastern ports to Europe. They carried 1.2m tonnes of cargo, a third more than in 2011. This “northern route” could erode Singapore’s position as a global shipping hub. And the melting of the Greenland glaciers could threaten its existence: Singapore’s highest point, Bukit Timah, is only 164m (538ft) above sea level.

Other non-Arctic countries queuing for various kinds of seat at the table are China, India, Italy, Japan and South Korea, as well as the European Union, Greenpeace and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers. Their applications—supposed to be ruled on in May—are the clearest signs of the growing geopolitical interest in the melting north. The existing members are wondering whether the outsiders will promote stability or disruption.

Even the current arrangements have attracted excited speculation. According to the United States Geological Survey, the Arctic has 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its gas (the gas estimate is pre-shale, so is probably too high)…Boundary disputes rumble between America and Canada over the Beaufort Sea; between Russia and America in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, and between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island and in the Lincoln Sea. Russia is modernising its northern fleet; America is thinking about putting armed coastguard vessels into its Arctic waters. The South China Sea shows how minor territorial disputes can flare dangerously, especially when natural resources are at stake….

All countries play by the rules. Legal norms are well established. The United Nations Law of the Sea, for example, has put almost all unprospected oil, gas and minerals under national jurisdictions, narrowing the scope for dispute (America has not ratified it, but says it will abide by it). Despite some swagger and stunts in past years, Russia is playing a constructive role, especially on shipping: it wants the “northern route” to be a success. In 2010 it settled a territorial dispute with Norway.

The Arctic Council epitomises this spirit of increasing co-operation. It began in 1996, mainly as a research project and talking-shop, but is fast becoming a decision-making body. In 2011 its members signed their first treaty, on joint search-and-rescue missions, which are too expensive for countries to undertake on their own. A second treaty—on cleaning up oil spills—will be signed shortly. On January 21st the members set up the first permanent secretariat, at Tromso in northern Norway.

One fear—especially in Canada—is that economic development could bring an oil spill that could devastate the pristine Arctic environment for decades. But a bigger question is what effect the newcomers might have on these cosy arrangements. Could China one day decide the northern sea route had become so important that it was within its sphere of strategic interest—meaning Chinese submarines would appear in Arctic waters? Such fears are far-fetched. The driving force of the outsiders’ interest is economic. China and others are backing the established rules and institutions such as the Arctic Council, not undermining them.  Yet worries persist. The insiders are squabbling about the right role for the outsiders. Canada is relaxed about China’s application to join the council, but fears the EU will try to stop its native peoples hunting seals (though the EU has a limited exemption for the Inuit). Russia is happy for the EU to join but is suspicious of letting in the Chinese.

China is also affecting the domestic policies of some Arctic countries, rather as it has in Africa. For instance, Greenland governs its own internal affairs, but Denmark runs its foreign policy. It contains about a tenth of the world’s deposits of rare-earth minerals. China, with a third or more of the rest, wants to build a big mine there to keep control over the global business. Uranium will be a by-product, but responsibility for disposing of that is considered a matter of foreign policy, residing in Copenhagen. Denmark has no experience of uranium recycling, and little desire to start.

Greenland’s government is also backing a $2.5 billion iron mine (by London Mining, the Isua Project) which, if it went ahead, would be worth more than the island’s annual GDP and could attract as many as 5,000 Chinese workers (how? London Mining is to work with). In December 2012 the local government exempted such large projects from Denmark’s strict labour laws. But Chinese workers in Greenland would still need visas, which must be issued in Copenhagen. Denmark could therefore face the unwelcome choice between scuppering a pet project of huge, poor Greenland’s or undermining its own labour laws.  For the foreseeable future China and others are unlikely to challenge the rules that underwrite Arctic stability. But the outsiders’ impact may be more disruptive than their self-restraint would suggest.

Outsiders in the Arctic: The roar of ice cracking, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 49

See also Arctic Council

Arctic Oil Spills are Not Preventable

Alaska oil drilling. Image from wikipedia

The Arctic Council Oil Spill Task Force, jointly led by the US, Norway and Russia, has finalized its work with drafting an agreement on oil pollution incidents in Arctic waters.  The agreement is to be presented and signed during the upcoming Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May. The agreement comes as a result of a decision made by ministers of the 8 Arctic Countries at their previous meeting, i.e., in May 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland, to develop an international instrument on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

The agreement will cover Arctic marine areas of the 8 Arctic Countries and apply to all kind of possible pollution sources, oilrigs and ships, except ships operated by a state such as naval vessels. The oil spill agreement will stipulate that each Arctic country must have a system in place that takes into account activities or places that are particularly likely to give rise to or suffer from incidents as well as areas of special ecological significance. Among other things, the agreement will contain rules for notifying about, monitoring, and assisting in responses to oil pollution incidents. It also will have stipulations regarding information exchange, the carrying out of joint exercises and training, and meetings of the parties to the agreement.

While advocating a moratorium on Arctic marine oil and gas extraction, environmentalist groups that have been following the preparation of the agreement text are welcoming it as a step forward in fighting oil spills. According to environmentalists, given that resource exploration and extraction in Arctic waters is increasing, oil spill incidents will inevitably happen. These groups also praises the fact that the agreement will recognize the role of indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents in supporting oil spill preparedness and response. Yet, at the same time, they criticize the agreement for not facilitating the use of privately owned – i.e., by oil companies – response equipment. NGOs furthermore point out that while the agreement goes a good long way to maintain and harmonize national procedures, it fails to commit its parties to actually raise their preparedness and response standards.

From the website of Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat

Arctic Council: why China, Japan, and the EU Hope to Join

“The Arctic is hot,” says Gustaf Lind, the Swedish ambassador who will chair the Arctic Council meeting in Stockholm on March 28th-29th. The other members are America, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Russia, plus six non-voting representatives of indigenous Arctic peoples such as Sami and Inuit.   he top of the world is warming roughly twice as fast as the rest of it: water in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is roughly 3.5°C warmer than a century ago. When dark, absorptive seawater replaces bright, reflective ice, it retains more heat. That speeds global warming. Largely as a result, the Arctic now has less sea-ice, for the time of year, than for millennia. Most scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to begin to be largely ice-free in summer sometime between 2020 and 2050.

As the ice retreats, rich Arctic deposits of oil, gas and other minerals become accessible. High commodity prices make them lucrative. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic has around a quarter of the world’s undiscovered and recoverable oil and gas reserves.

New commercial trans-Arctic shipping routes will sharply cut the distance between Europe and Asia. In 2011 a Russian supertanker, aided by two nuclear icebreakers, became the first such vessel to traverse the North-east Passage across the Arctic, hugging the Siberian coastline (Russians call it the “northern route”). Countries that ply global trade lanes, and make the ships that do, see the potential. China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, plus Italy, have applied to join the Arctic Council as observers; so has the European Union.

That, too, has generated some heat. A Norwegian newspaper reported in January that Norway was threatening to block China’s bid for observer status, part of a row that started when the Oslo-based Nobel prize committee awarded the 2010 peace prize to a jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. All sides deny that (and Norway, like the other Nordic countries, is generally an enthusiast for enlargement). But officials in Oslo are not the only ones with mixed feelings about Chinese membership. Russia, which owns half the Arctic coastline and the lion’s share of the region’s resources, is also reluctant. Canada, which displays distinctive robustness on Arctic issues, is not minded to admit the EU, which tiresomely bemoans the annual seal slaughter.

Sweden says it wants to settle the observer issue by May 2013. The ostensible ground for delay is over the newcomers’ role. But it already seems that this will be limited to watching and listening—as it is for the six existing observers: countries like Britain and Poland with long traditions of Arctic activity. No Arctic country is in a hurry to expand the club. Despite excited predictions of a dangerous scramble for Arctic resources, the region’s sovereignty is fairly clearly defined. The Arctic is the polar opposite of Antarctica, figuratively as well as literally. It is not a disputed land mass surrounded by ocean. It is an ocean plus some almost entirely delimited land. It has no need of an international treaty like the one that governs Antarctica.

A handful of disputes rumble on: about a few rocks located between Greenland (a Danish fief) and Canada; and between Canada and America over the status of the North-west Passage shipping route. A bigger row could yet erupt over continental shelves, most of which are being slowly delimited under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. But all these squabbles are between the Arctic countries themselves, not with outsiders.

The members think their club is working rather well as it is. Founded in 1996, partly to promote joint scientific research, it focuses on activities such as pollution, marine conservation and mapping. It does this well. Last year members signed their first legally binding agreement, on search-and-rescue missions. Next will be a deal on responding to oil spills. Russia, which caused a flurry of concern in 2007, when an explorer called Artur Chilingarov planted his country’s flag under the North Pole, is now oozing amity. In 2011 it ended one of the Arctic’s longest-running disputes, by reaching agreement over its maritime border with Norway.

Reassured that they have little to squabble over, Arctic countries are finding that the enormous costs of research, policing and energy exploration are better shared. Hence, for example, the eagerness of Russia’s state-owned energy companies to form joint ventures, such as that agreed last year between Rosneft and Exxon Mobil in the Kara Sea. The development of Arctic shipping-lanes will also be made easier with good regional relations: there is talk of either Iceland or Norway developing a transshipment port to serve Russia’s north-eastern route.

The message is clear: welcome to the new world of the warming Arctic. But remember who runs it.

Arctic Politics: Cosy amid the thaw, Economist, March 24,2012, at 61

The New Economic Appropriations of the Arctic: great powers versus the newcomers

China, Brazil and India want seats on the Arctic Council as global warming creates new opportunities for shipping and resource extraction in the vast Arctic region. There are concerns this is the beginning of a 21st century “scramble for the Arctic”, but rather than staking territorial claims, non- Arctic countries want to exert economic and political influence in the region.  China already has a research station in Norway’s high Arctic and is building an 8,000-tonne icebreaker.

Canada has a great opportunity to become an influential Arctic power, and to ensure the resource-rich but fragile region doesn’t become a “Wild West” where the views of indigenous and other longstanding residents are ignored, said Tony Penikett, former premier of the Yukon, one of Canada’s three Arctic territories.  In 2013, Canada will chair the Arctic Council, a highly influential governmental forum originally created to promote international cooperation in the North. The council faces major issues such as expanded membership, increases in trans-Arctic shipping, resource extraction, and environmental protection of the fragile region already hard hit by climate change.  The council is unique amongst international bodies by including six Arctic indigenous groups as permanent members along with eight countries with Arctic territories: Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland). However, only these countries have a vote. There are also six non-Arctic nations that sit in as observers today: the Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.  Disputes between Arctic nations are rare and the Council serves an important platform for discussion. Russia and Norway concluded a boundary treaty for the Barents Sea in 2010. Other territorial disputes, such as between Russia, Denmark and Canada over rights to parts of the Lomonosov Ridge, are being sorted out under the Law of the Sea Convention.

“However, the Council is struggling with the issue of addition of other non-Arctic nations,” Penikett told IPS.  The European Union, other European nations, Japan and South Korea have indicated they want observer status as well. “To remain relevant does the Council give other nations a larger role or remain an exclusive club?” he asked.

Russia and Canada have strongly opposed expansion. Indigenous groups also oppose it, fearing their influence and voice will be diluted, said Penikett, who will be a keynote speaker at the second annual Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Conference this week at the University of Toronto.  The conference theme is “The Arctic Council: Its place in the future of Arctic governance,” and will include policymakers and academics from all circumpolar states.

“Expansion would give the council a much stronger voice,” said Michael Byers, a professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.  Having a larger, more influential membership would bring more public attention to the region, Byers said in an interview. “Excluding other countries who have legitimate interests [?] will simply create friction,” he said.

Last summer, the Russian-owned Vladimir Tikhonov became the first supertanker ever to navigate the 5,500-kilometre Northeast Passage. Also known as the Russian Northern Sea Route, it cuts thousands of kilometres off the distance between Europe and Asia compared to going through the Panama Canal.  Arctic waters will remain extremely dangerous for a long time. Last month a huge floating Russian oil drilling rig sank in a storm, killing 53 workers. Fortunately, it was being towed back to port at the time and no oil was spilled.

The Arctic Council has pioneered a new circumpolar search and rescue cooperation agreement, but it has not dealt with oil spill response or even considered environmental safety standards for oil and gas drilling, said Sara French, Arctic security researcher at the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, a NGO with focus on the Arctic and water.  There have been some preliminary discussions about oil spills but nothing about safety standards for Arctic drilling, French told IPS.

“The Inuit Circumpolar Council has brought up the issue and they do want a common set of rules to protect the environment,” she said.  As chair, Canada could demonstrate its leadership on Arctic issues, including strengthening the voice of the indigenous people, she said.  Canada could be a leader – but it won’t under the Harper government, predicted Byers.  “Climate change and its consequences are the overriding issue in the Arctic,” he said.

Under the Harper government, Canada has been a “rogue state” at international climate meetings and its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to reduce carbon emissions causing climate change. Instead of reducing those emissions by six percent as agreed in the treaty, Canada’s emissions soared 24 percent. Last month, as reported by IPS, the Harper government pulled out of Kyoto.  “Canada is seen to have a retrograde position on climate change. That will make it challenging to be an effective leader on the Council,” said Byers.

Being chair of the Council could be good opportunity for Canada, he acknowledged. “However, I am worried that the current government will squander this opportunity.”

By Stephen Leahy, Melting Ice Makes Arctic Access a Hot Commodity, IPS, Jan. 16, 2012