Two U.S. Navy Vessels Collide

A previous article explained why the Arctic is currently a central theme in world politics. Canadian Professor Michael Byers established this thesis during a highly informative event hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) – entitled “Passing the Arctic Council Torch” – that brought together leading Arctic experts from government and academia last week in Washington, DC.

Convincingly, Professor Byers argued:

The Arctic is at the center of world politics (…) [specifically because of] two features, [the Arctic] being on the front line of the greatest challenge humankind may face in this century and given the all-important relationship between Russia and NATO. [This relationship will continue to] be front and center of international diplomacy.”

His main conclusion is straightforward – climate change needs to have the highest priority on any agenda dealing with the Arctic (Read Breaking Energy coverage here). Thus, for the US to recognize – in line with domestic action on climate change – the environmental context and associated risks of human activity on an ecologically and biologically delicate region is sensible but also should not lose sight of the region’s need for sustainable and reasonable economic development.

During the CSIS event, Arctic experts on various interesting panels presented their own wish lists of agenda items for US consideration as upcoming Chair of the Arctic Council. Canadian Global Politics and International Law Professor at the University of British Columbia Michael Byers’ of wish list of issues that need to be properly addressed include complex and prudent items such as a polar code on shipping, maritime boundary issues, extended continental shelf, the issue of international straits, and  “cooperative ecosystem management.”

Perhaps the one other issue that deserves to be singled out has to do with how to balance climate change and the exploitation of natural resources. Development in the High North driven by resource extraction has already become a reality with all sorts of ramifications for the pristine environment. Thus, a sustainable and relatively ‘climate-friendly’ regulatory framework is advisable.

In this respect, Professor Byers called for the further implementation of the two agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council: The “Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic” and the “Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic.” In his view, these protocols are imperative when dealing with major oil spills and major search and rescue operations. They should include the forward- as well as pre-positioning of emergency equipment north of the Arctic Circle such as long-range search and rescue helicopters. Concrete measures – in contrast to commitments on paper only – will ensure that Arctic states are ready for emergencies when and if they arise. Professor Byers added that all this should be flanked by meaningful specific oil spill agreements inclusive of liability clauses and not just guidelines.

Prima facie, David J. Hayes, Dist. Visiting Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School and former Deputy Secretary at the Department of the Interior, seconds Professor Byers with very similar thoughts – climate change topping his wish list too – by suggesting that the expression of climate change in the Arctic is a precursor for oil and gas development in the region. In contrast to Professor Byers, his overall take, however, seems to imply a more restrictive approach to resource development; in particular, focusing on people and ecosystem impacts. His most important and very valid point, which is directly related to climate change, has to do with a holistic understanding of ‘governance’: “In order to make the best decisions, [we need] a sense of overview of how ecosystems work. (…) There is no infrastructure to respond to an oil spill in the Arctic and we need to be very smart,” he notes.

Basically, he argues for science- or ecosystem-based Arctic management in sharp contrast to the current “project-by-project” approach utilized in resource development. This makes a lot of sense given that with proper strategic foresight, environmental protection and resource development can coexist – with the potential for major ‘economies of scale’ benefits for operators. It would ensure that the proper location is chosen both for deepwater ports and oil wells in the sense that climate change is not exacerbated. Port logistics and transportation infrastructure, offloading and storage facilities for onshore as well as offshore oil could be shared. The following maps show the number of resource development projects at all stages of development across the Canadian and American High North.

roman arctic1Source: State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas, September 2014; enlarge here.

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Source: State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas, September 2014; enlarge here.

Canadian Arctic Resource Development Projects

roman arctic3

Source: CANATEC Associates International, “Arctic Energy Gateway for Alberta” (May 2013)

David Ramsay – NWT Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment (Canada) and President of PNWER – reverted back to the ‘infrastructure issue’ in his presentation: “[Currently,] the infrastructure is undeveloped and thus the resource potential stranded. In spite of that, tremendous interest [exists in the Arctic].” The map below by Cryopolitics illustrates this point nicely.

Sheer Lack of Infrastructure North of the Arctic Circle

roman arctic4 Source: Cryopolitics / Mia Bennett

The next map shows the so far uneven Arctic development between the US and Russia. Note, Scandinavian countries and, above all, the Russian Arctic are both graced with well-developed port logistics and infrastructure vis-à-vis the US Arctic. Orange dots mark “all of the ports of call for ships sailing to or from the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in 2013,” according to NSR Port data from the NSR Administration used by Mia Bennett. The only US port near the Bering Strait is Nome. US authorities are slowly zeroing in on Port Clarence as a potential site, as the Alaska Journal of Commerce reports. The site is northwest of Nome on the Seward Peninsula, which is “one of Alaska’s few naturally deepwater ports,” according to Alaska Public Media. It is also the only deepwater port close to the Bering Strait.

Arctic Ports of Call along the NSR roman arctic5

Source: Cryopolitics / Mia Bennett

Meanwhile, Russia is in the process of restoring and/or reinstating its Arctic military bases from the Soviet era – Rogachevo, Ostrov Greem-Bell and Naryan-Mar. It is ironic that climate change – with the resulting vanishing sea ice along the Northern Sea Route in summer – helped to turn the Arctic Ocean after two decades again into a focal region of Russian national security interests. For Russia the Arctic is a strategic region in many respects. It is an oil- and gas-rich region (offshore) crucial for Russia’s economic survival because many of Russia’s highest producing oil fields south of the Arctic Circle in Western Siberia are maturing. Moreover and most notable, about 20 per cent of Russia’s landmass is situated north of the Arctic Circle. Developed Arctic port infrastructure is evidence of the fact that exploiting the Arctic for economic benefit in terms of maritime trade and fishing is nothing new. Therefore, it can barely come as a surprise that Russia is taking up strategic positions previously abandoned by the Soviet Union in order to militarily protect its vast Arctic infrastructure.

The Moscow Times reported in October on Russia’s intention to “establish a military command structure with two brigades of mechanized infantry supported by snowmobiles and hovercraft by 2017.” According to the cited Russian military source the objective is to “patrol Russia’s Arctic coastline, protect current and future military installations along the shore and in the Russian Arctic, ensure free passage of the Northern Sea Route and (…) demonstrate to other Arctic nations Russia’s military presence in the increasingly contested region.”

Interestingly, the Moscow Times article also mentions a 2015 reopening of Russia’s “entire former Soviet defense infrastructure in the region.” This coincides with the US Arctic Council Chairmanship and may explain why former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed publicly that Russia was aggressively reopening military bases in the Arctic. The Moscow Times also discusses ongoing construction on “two brand new military installations in the Arctic” with the possibility of “six additional new bases throughout the Arctic.” One of the projects referred to here is likely a new nuclear-powered icebreaker commissioned by 2015 with a year-round port at Sabetta.

In sum, even though these developments seem to push military security on the US Arctic agenda, it better serves US interest to comprehend Russia’s moves in the Arctic as rational – as explained above – and thus expand the use of confidence-building measures, as well as prioritize climate change within the existing institutional and legal framework during its Arctic Council Chairmanship. Note, Russia’s Ria NovostiThe Arctic’ website cites a 2008 US Geological Survey (USGS) estimating that the “majority of untapped natural gas probably lies within Russian territory, while most of the oil is located offshore of Alaska.” This indicates that the world may be only on the cusp of aggressive Arctic development. This is further underscored by ‘The Arctic’ pointing out that “[a]bout 60 or [more than 400 onshore oil and gas fields, that have been discovered north of the Arctic Circle,] are very extensive, but roughly one quarter of them are not yet in production.”

Consequently, because climate change and geopolitics merge in the Arctic, smart US policy beyond simple stewardship of the Arctic is required. It should focus on the two dimensions found in the founding documents of the Arctic Council: “the protection of the Arctic Environment and sustainable development as a means of improving the economic, social and cultural well-being in the North.” The latter explicitly includes the “conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.”

In those areas consensual agreement with Russia is most likely and indispensable for both sides irrespective of present ‘Ukraine-induced’ animosities in order to be fully prepared to tackle the impact of potential oil spills in one Arctic sector on the entire Arctic ecosystem. Focusing more on the military aspects of security in the Arctic would be counterproductive in that respect and at the current stage of the game. Moreover, it could bring a possible rapprochement on climate change – at least in the Arctic – to a dangerous standstill. This, however, does not exclude further infrastructure build-up in the “American Arctic” – related to crucial energy projects – a strengthening of US military capabilities for critical assets protection in the medium to long term. Before the US clearly shifts political gears from a simple stewardship of the Arctic to full domestic resource development in the Arctic, the most promising and advisable way forward within the Arctic Council is a consensus-based, climate-change-oriented policy with the protection of the Arctic environment in mind in order to pave the way for later responsible, sustainable and relatively ‘climate-friendly’ resource development across the entire Arctic region.