Cold War in the Arctic? Countries Seek Piece of Pie

As it stands, Arctic policy is already a dense network of legal and political agreements between different national and supranational stakeholders. Now the European Union wants to play a greater role in shaping it.
Von Gerd Braune

In November 2008, the EU Commission published a report entitled "The European Union and the Arctic Region," which was submitted as a "communication" to the European Parliament and the Council. This "communication" is seen as the first step in the development of a systematic EU Arctic policy that addresses not only the greater potential for economic utilization resulting from climate change but also the threat to the Arctic environment posed by both climate change and human encroachment. Moreover, with this document the European Union has shifted Arctic policy beyond the inner circle of polar powers and made it an international issue.

There is very little if any awareness among many Europeans that the European Union includes Arctic territory. To some extent this is due to the fact that the term "Arctic" needs to be more precisely defined. While it is generally accepted that the Arctic is not confined to the geographic North Pole, definitions vary of how far the Arctic region actually extends. On Canadian maps the North Circumpolar Region includes Churchill -- population 963 and polar-bear capital of the world -- and the southern shores of Hudson Bay. However, Churchill lies to the south of the 60th parallel. In European terms, this would mean that Scotland is an Arctic region. Demarcations of the Arctic in terms of climatic and plant-geographical factors, such as temperature and timber line, are also open to interpretation.

A less contentious definition of the Arctic is that area above the Arctic Circle, which is located at latitude 66.55 degrees north. This is the definition adopted by the EU Commission: in geographical terms the "Arctic region" is the area around the North Pole to the north of the Arctic Circle. This makes the European Union an Arctic stakeholder. Apart from the Arctic Ocean and a number of its seas, the Arctic includes territory of eight different countries: the three EU members Denmark (Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, and Sweden, as well as Iceland, Norway, Russia, Canada, and the United States (Alaska). Admittedly, the European Union does not directly abut the Arctic Ocean since the entire Scandinavian Arctic coast is Norwegian territory and Greenland, although it belongs to Denmark, is not integrated in the European Union. However, in terms of climate and plant geography, and location within the Arctic Circle, the north of the European Union can be regarded as part of the Arctic.

The Commission thus did well to emphasize that the European Union is "inextricably linked" to the Arctic region through a combination of history, geography, economy, and scientific achievements. Furthermore, it argues that this link is not confined to its three Arctic states. Norway and Iceland are members of the European Economic Area. Russia, together with Norway and Iceland, is an EU partner in the Northern Dimension Policy, a project launched in 2005-2006 to strengthen cooperation in northern Europe. In addition, the European Union is linked to the United States and Canada by the transatlantic partnership and NATO.

Melting Away

For centuries the Arctic attracted adventurers, explorers, and traders. This inhospitable region offered the prospect of profits from furs, fishing and whaling, gold, and raw materials. Above all, it drew those in search of the legendary Northwest Passage through the archipelago that today belongs to Canada and the Northeast Passage around the North Cape and along the coast of Siberia.

Economic interests and shipping routes are also key to the current focus on the Arctic. The ice sheet in the Arctic Ocean is shrinking as a result of climate change. At the Arctic Change 2008 conference held in Quebec in December 2008, scientists and Inuit inhabitants reported on the dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic. According to Christian Haas from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremen, who is currently teaching at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the reduction in Arctic sea ice coverage from an average of seven million square kilometers between 1979 and 2000 to just over four million square kilometers is only one factor in the equation. There has also been a significant reduction in ice thickness, which could conceivably lead to the complete disappearance of Arctic Ocean ice during the summer thaw.

Between 1903 and 1906 Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage and in the process spent two winters trapped in the Arctic ice. Over the last two summers both the Northwest and the Northeast passages have been open to shipping for the first time. Taking ships through northern Canada's network of islands instead of through the Panama Canal would cut 8000 kilometers off the journey from Europe to Asia and represent considerable savings in terms of fuel and time.

There is also increased interest in the potential extraction of raw materials from the Arctic Ocean floor. Since the end of the 1970s, the Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska's North Slope has been the largest field in North America, producing 15 billion barrels of crude oil. The latest assessment by the US Geological Survey indicates that the Arctic probably contains 90 billion barrels of oil and almost 50 trillion cubic meters of natural gas that have not yet been discovered and could be extracted using existing technology. These reserves are located predominantly in offshore coastal areas, with smaller amounts also found on land. Moreover, it is thought that permafrost areas in northern Alaska and the coastal seabed of the Arctic Ocean contain enormous quantities of gas hydrates consisting of ice and methane that could provide a future source of natural gas. Significant deposits of minerals such as diamonds, gold, zinc, nickel, and molybednum have also been found.

Disputed Ocean Floor

This information has been around for a long time and is based on verifiable data or conclusions drawn from comparative research into geological formations. In particular, the countries bordering the Arctic Ocean -- Canada, Russia, Denmark/Greenland, the United States, and Norway -- have been gathering information for years in order to validate their claims to the resource-rich seabed. Nevertheless, for a long time the Arctic remained a remote issue for policymakers and the general public.

This changed in the summer of 2007. On August 2, Russian submersibles dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag onto the seafloor at the North Pole at a depth of 4261 meters. This spectacular piece of symbolism transformed the question of sovereign rights in the Arctic region, which until then had been the sole preserve of scientists and legal experts, into an urgent political issue. Headlines suddenly appeared referring to a new Cold War in the Arctic, a race for sovereign rights, and even an arms buildup in the far north.

In the view of observers like Michael Byers, political scientist at the University of British Columbia, this is nonsense. As he sees it, the only race going on is a scientific one to accrue the data required to determine who will have jurisdiction over the ocean floor.

Legal Framework Requirements

The most significant international agreement for the current debate on jurisdiction and sovereign rights in the Arctic is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Often described as a "constitution for the oceans," the convention, which came into force in 1994, has now been ratified by 155 nations, including Germany. The United States is the only major industrial nation not to have signed the treaty.

The UNCLOS permits coastal states to establish an "exclusive economic zone" extending up to 200 nautical miles -- the so-called 200-mile-zone -- within which they exercise sovereign rights over both the waters and the seabed. However, this sovereign territory may be extended depending on how far the continental land mass extends out under the ocean. In such cases the outer boundaries of this so-called continental shelf must be precisely defined and documented.

Cut-off lines are determined by a number of factors, including the structure of the ocean floor, sediment thickness and ocean depth. Such definitions can be a matter of dispute, as in the case of the Lomonosov Ridge, a mountain range extending over 1500 kilometers under the Arctic Ocean. Determining whether this geological formation is part of the continental shelf of Russia, Canada, or Denmark/Greenland is crucial to deciding which country has sovereign rights over the seabed around the North Pole.

The European Union's Role

A coastal state must submit its claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf within a ten-year period following its ratification of the convention. The deadline for submissions relating to the Arctic is now approaching and it is for this reason that the "race" is on.

The discussion of national rights in this context is also often dogged by a lack of terminological clarity both on the part of policymakers and the media, particularly when it comes to the concept of sovereignty. There is no question here of states denying access to shipping or preventing fishing on the high seas. Outside the 200-mile zone the only relevant issue is the right to utilization of the seabed and the exploitation of its natural resources.

In spring 2008, in response to the sometimes irrational debate on the utilization of the Arctic Ocean, Denmark's foreign minister and the premier of Greenland invited representatives of four other coastal states (Canada, United States, Norway, and Russia) to attend a conference in the Greenland town of Ilulissat. The conference ended on May 29 with the adoption of the Ilulissat Declaration, which declared that climate change and the melting of the polar ice have a "potential impact" on vulnerable ecosystems, the livelihoods of local inhabitants and indigenous communities, and the potential exploitation of natural resources.

Due to their sovereign rights and jurisdiction in large areas of the Arctic Ocean, the five coastal states see themselves in a "unique position" to address these possibilities and challenges. The decisive formulations in the declaration relate to the UNCLOS. The signatories agree that the law of the sea provides for important rights and obligations regarding the delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf, the protection of the marine environment, freedom of navigation, and marine research. The declaration states: "We remain committed to this legal framework and to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims." In other words, Ilulissat affirms the status of the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the definitive document in relation to the Arctic.

Although the Arctic coastal states emphasized their willingness to cooperate within the Arctic Council, it could be argued that this statement of intent was undermined by the failure of the Ilulissat meeting to include Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The latter are also members of the Arctic Council, which was formed in 1996 with the Ottawa Declaration by the responsible ministers and had its inaugural meeting in 1998. This inter-governmental forum aims to promote cooperation between the Arctic states, above all in relation to the sustainable development of the Arctic and the protection of its environment.

As a rule, the Arctic's indigenous peoples-among others the Inuit, the Saami, and the Gwich'in-tend to view such undertakings with suspicion, since they are under the impression that Europeans and their politicians are more inclined to pay attention to campaigns by animal rights activists than to listen to the concerns of indigenous communities, e.g. over the contentious issue of seal hunting. On the other hand, some representatives of aboriginal peoples seem to develop some unwillingness to accept scientific data from "mainstream" science if these data contradict their experience and their "traditional knowledge" as shown in the dispute about polar bear hunting in the Canadian East Arctic.

The EU Commission's "Communication"

Current Arctic policy is already a dense network of legal and political agreements between national and supranational stakeholders such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is responsible for shipping, the International Seabed Authority and fisheries organizations such as the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC). Relevant international agreements include the Spitzbergen Treaty of 1920, the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears of 1973 and environmental agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Stockholm Convention banning persistent organic pollutants agreed in 2001.

The European Union is now aiming to play a greater role in this area. The Commission report identifies three major objectives: protecting and preserving the Arctic in unison with its population, promoting sustainable use of resources, and contributing to enhanced multilateral Arctic governance.

The European Union sees the prevention and mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change and the adaptation to inevitable changes resulting from it as the most important goals of its Arctic policy. It stresses the need to strengthen both its own policies and international agreements relating to environmental protection and the mitigation of climate change. The European Union also emphasizes its support for the region's local and indigenous communities and claims indigenous rights to be one of its priorities. In addition, the Commission calls for an open dialogue between indigenous inhabitants using traditional hunting methods and the European animal rights movement.

The EU Commission's communication also addresses the subject of untapped hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic, which are partly located within the 200-mile zones of the Arctic states. The Commission sees these resources as potentially playing a role in enhancing the European Union's energy security while also recognizing that exploitation will be slow due to the challenges posed by harsh conditions and environmental risks. It also argues that the fishing industry must be regulated both to ensure sustainability and to protect the rights of local communities. At present, Arctic communities are concerned that opening the Arctic Ocean to international fishing fleets will deprive them of their livelihood and leave them unable to compete with industrial fisheries on the open market. They are therefore calling for detailed management plans to avoid such consequences.

In view of the reduction of sea ice coverage in the Arctic, the European Union argues for the gradual introduction of commercial navigation through the region while stressing the need for stricter safety and environmental standards. At the same time, it supports the principle of freedom of navigation and the internationally recognized right of innocent passage in newly opened routes and areas. It also argues that the existing obligations concerning maritime safety and environmental standards recognized by the IMO must be implemented.

There is potential for conflict here with Canada. The European Union's emphasis on freedom of navigation and right of passage is seen at least in parts of the Canadian academic community as an attempt to question Canadian jurisdiction regarding navigation and safety in the Northwest Passage. Doubts have been expressed from the Canadian side as to whether the European Union's reference to the IMO really indicates a desire for stricter regulations or rather a deviation from Canadian standards as defined in the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. In an interview with the Canadian Press agency, Rob Huebert of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Calgary, recently accused the European Union of taking the moral high ground while seeking exceptions wherever EU interests were affected.

In terms of Arctic governance, the European Union sees the main problems as the fragmentation of the legal framework, the lack of effective instruments, and the absence of an overall policy-setting process. The Commission therefore calls for the further development of cooperative Arctic governance based on the UNCLOS, arguing that existing legal and policy instruments should be developed and adapted to the new conditions in the Arctic region.

US National Interests

The significance of Arctic policy indicated by the EU Commission's "communication" is further emphasized by the remarkable decision by US President George W. Bush in the last days of his administration to sign a "presidential security directive" on Arctic policy. This document, which represents the first revision of US Arctic policy since 1994, states that the "United States is an Arctic nation, with varied and compelling interests in the region." The directive focuses on security policy, the economic utilization of the oil-rich region, and environmental protection. It emphasizes the strategic significance of the Arctic for the United States in relation to missile defense and early warning systems that are either being planned or have already been built and notes the potential vulnerability of the United States to terrorist and criminal acts in the Arctic region.

The reference to shipping in this context suggests that the United States envisages increased conflict with its neighbor Canada over navigation rights. The directive states even more clearly than the EU report that the Northwest Passage through the islands of northern Canada must be subject to the existing regime of transit passage. This is a legally correct way of saying that the Northwest Passage is an international sea route and not, as Canada sees it, an internal waterway that should be regulated by Canadian national law.

Canada has long been aware of the US position on this issue. Nevertheless, the clear assertion of US claims here is surprising. Further points of contention referred to are the northern sea route along the Siberian coast and the US-Canadian boundary in the Beaufort Sea between Alaska and Canada's Yukon territory.

The US document nevertheless emphasizes the necessity of international cooperation and stresses the role of the Arctic Council. The United States is the only large industrial nation not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Bush administration supported the country's accession to the treaty. However, the directive clearly links the convention with US interests and shows that the United States's main goal in working within such international agreements is the promotion of its own national interests.

An Arctic Treaty?

With its comments on governance and its statement that there is "no specific treaty regime for the Arctic" the EU Commission addresses an issue that is currently being hotly discussed above all in academic circles: Is it time for an Arctic treaty?

March 1, 2009, will mark the formal end of the International Polar Year 2007-8. The last International Polar Year was exactly 50 years ago and provided the impetus for the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed on December 1, 1959, in Washington by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Britain, New Zealand, Norway, Belgium, Japan, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The treaty came into force on June 23, 1961, and has now been ratified by a further 34 states. The Antarctic Treaty prevented the division of the Antarctic continent and the Southern Ocean into national zones of sovereignty. Claims to sovereignty were put aside in favor of the peaceful use of Antarctica for scientific purposes, and economic exploitation was specifically prohibited by a subsequent agreement. This historic treaty will be in force until 2041.

Don Rothwell from the University of Canberra believes that the time is now ripe for an Arctic treaty on the Antarctic model: a system of rules for the management of the ocean and bordering territories to ensure the protection of flora and fauna and the prevention of environmental damage. Rothwell sees unresolved questions of sovereignty as a potential catalyst for such a treaty. At the Arctic Change 2008 conference in Quebec he argued that while sovereign rights should not be compromised, overlapping claims to the continental shelf should initially be deferred.

The chances of this happening are not good. The Ilulissat Declaration states, "We ... see no need to develop a new comprehensive international regime to govern the Arctic Ocean." The EU Commission has also clearly dismissed the idea of a new Arctic treaty. As the EU communication puts it, "The full implementation of already existing obligations, rather than proposing new instruments should be advocated." The US directive is even more unequivocal, stating that an Arctic treaty modelled on the Antarctic agreement is "not appropriate or necessary." A powerful advocate for an Arctic treaty would thus be required for this concept to have any chance of being realized. At present none of the Arctic states are showing any interest in deferring their national rights in favor of international administration of the Arctic Ocean.

Risks from Climate Change

March 24 of this year is the twentieth anniversary of catastrophe caused when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound on Alaska's Pacific Coast, spilling 40 million liters of oil into the ocean. It remains one of the worst oil spills in history. The Exxon Valdez catastrophe is a cautionary example of what could happen in the remote, still incompletely mapped reaches of the Arctic Ocean. Far away from cities that could provide a rapid response, such an oil spill in the north polar region would truly be a catastrophe.

Climate change is creating possibilities for economic utilization of the Arctic region. However, the melting of Arctic ice is influencing biological and chemical processes in the ocean and could also lead to changes in ocean currents. If the Arctic permafrost soil thaws, local communities will be endangered by coastal erosion. Moreover, if the Greenland ice sheet melts completely, sea levels will rise with catastrophic consequences for those living in small island states in the southern hemisphere and in low-lying coastal regions. Greater access to the Arctic will also increase the potential for drug, weapons, and human trafficking, thereby creating security risks. The changes in the Arctic are an indicator of upheavals that can have worldwide consequences.

Gerd Braune has worked as a correspondant for daily newspapers in Ottawa since 1997.
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.