Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Boiling Over the Arctic

In the next few months, all eyes are going to be on the growing conflict that is currently simmering in the cold arctic circle. As the ice melts, the once remote and un-navigable area is opening to all sorts of activity. This will have serious repercussions for the local environment and the world. Everything from ships using the new trade routes to militarizing the area to the mining and the extraction of newly discovered minerals and oil will have potentially catastrophic effects.

A spill or other environmental disaster is going to happen in the Arctic, it is only a matter of time. While there are plenty of lists out there from organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, the Ocean ConservancyGreenpeace and even Mother Jones discussing why an arctic spill would be a horrible tragedy that would be impossible to clean, the real kicker is that no country in the Arctic Council is prepared to handle such an event (See the recent report highlighting the U.S.'s and the international oil industries inadequacies).

The Arctic Council

To understand the issues, we need to familiarize ourselves with the political body set in charge of the Arctic. The territory that makes up the Arctic Circle is divided up among 6 countries; the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Norway, Greenland (Denmark), and Russia. Each country is allowed to claim 200 miles of the ocean off of their perspective coasts. These six countries make up an odd diplomatic assembly known as the Arctic Council whose responsibility it is "to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic."

Diplomacy surrounding this northern jewel housing a possible 20-30% of the world's untapped energy resources has already begun to heat up as countries scramble to stake their claims and begin the extraction process. This region, and the stakeholders involved are becoming ever more important yet, the United States currently does not have a permanent ambassador to the Arctic Council.

While the Council has put together an Arctic Search and Rescue plan that cuts through the territorial claims and disputes in the Arctic, there is currently no plan in the advent of an environmental catastrophe (with this exception of lose objectives). No one has really answered the question, "What happens when oil spills in the Arctic?"

The Swimming Bear

Russia in particular is taking a hugely aggressive stance and has topped off at $63 Billion worth of investment in arctic resource extraction so far. As you can see from the fantastic map created by the NY Times above, there are pockets of oil wells scattering over only a portion of the area that is yet to be explored. This is only the start.

To hear it from Vladmir Putin, "this, in essence, is the beginning of great and large-scale extraction of minerals and oil by our country, [Russia] in the Arctic."

This "large-scale extraction" is occurring while Russia increases their Naval and Military presence in the area. The United States is also concentrating on the pricey process of militarizing the Arctic Ocean. This is all heading towards another Russian-NATO standoff.
“The United States is anxious to militarize the Arctic Ocean. It has to do it via its relations with Canada and it is also seeking to do it via NATO, through the participation of Norway and Denmark in NATO. And now it is calling upon Sweden and Finland to essentially join NATO with a view to establishing a NATO agenda in the Arctic,” Michel Chossudovsky, from the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal.
Bringing the decades old conflict between western powers and Russian influence into the arctic could be explosive. With the pressures that Russia has exerted on Europe through oil supply threats during the ongoing Ukrainian situation, the question starts to become, how much control does Russia have over global oil supplies and what is the impact of the arctic reserves?

Spills and Companies

Remember that Russia has had massive oil spill problems in its own cold-climate Siberia and the country has already started working with companies like Exxon Mobil in the Arctic. Other international oil companies have begun to partner up and have already tried to make the rules and standards surrounding oil extraction more lax in Canada. Shell, who has massive spill issues most recently in Texas, has plans in the works for drilling around Alaska. BP, who some may remember from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy that is still affecting the Gulf of Mexico and who just recently sprayed an oil mist over 27 acres of Alaskan tundra, has won drilling options off the pristine and beautiful Greenland coast.

Again, an arctic oil spill is only a matter of time.

The Hope 

Back in August, 30 Greenpeace protesters boarded the Russian Prirazlomnaya arctic oil platform to try and bring world attention to the looming threat of an arctic environmental disaster. The protesters whose origins spanned the globe and whose members included the famous Russian photographer Denis Sinyakov, were arrested by the Russian military on the charge of piracy and detained for months.

It took an international tribunal and 11 Nobel peace laureates writing to Putin, calling on him to drop the "excessive" charges of piracy, to have these protesters released on bail.

When Russia started exporting Arctic oil from the Prirazlomnaya platform last week, Greenpeace was there again. This time it was the Dutch who arrested the protesters, only to be released a few hours after being towed to Rotterdam with no charges.
Greenpeace is changing the maritime political landscape with their activities and it is amazing to watch. The trouble is that since they are fighting against the interests of major nations and international corporations, they can only do so much.

A simple solution to the pending geo-political and environmental disaster is to stop our oil addiction. It will be a slow process but the more we divest from oil and revert that money towards alternative energies, the less this tense situation, and powder kegs like those in the middle eastern countries, become relevant.

We, as a species, need to come together and push for energy that won't destroy our future. I call on anyone who reads this to petition the Arctic Council and their own leadership for sanity. The best possible solution would be to declare the polar regions Marine Protected Areas with used designated solely for science.