The Arctic Council
, which helps broker economic and environmental agreements between the Arctic nations, needs a larger role in developing joint international policy
, says Norway’s ambassador to Canada. Accelerating ice melt is expected to open the Arctic Ocean to seasonal ship traffic sometime between 2013 and 2030
– which analysts worry will lead to disputes over newly accessible oil and gas reserves.
The Arctic Council was founded in 1996 to “provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States” – Canada, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, the United States, as well as some Arctic indigenous communities are all members. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic may contain up to 90 billion barrels of oil (more than the known reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan, and Mexico combined) and 27 percent of the world’s known natural gas reserves, most of which is located offshore.
While rhetorical flare-ups over access to resources and accusations of militarization have occurred, to date the Arctic Council has been an effective mitigating body. However, the Council currently lacks a permanent secretariat and reliable funding.
Currently, any territorial disputes are handled under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), while the Arctic Council mainly facilitates communication. However the United States has not yet ratified the Law of the Sea, despite concerted high-level efforts to do so.
Referring to the Arctic, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told Congress that “the Law of the Sea provides commercial rights to the mining of what is in the seabed of the territories that are claimable under sovereignty provisions in the treaty,” and if the United States does not ratify it, “we will lose out, in economic and resource rights, in terms of environmental interests, and national security.”
While the National Intelligence Council predicts that a major armed conflict over the Arctic is unlikely in the near future, it suggests that “serious near-term tension could result in small-scale confrontations over contested claims.” A comprehensive agreement brokered by Arctic Council leadership and agreed upon by all members – like the Convention on the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution, and Protocols, which helps regulate commerce and environmental protections – would guarantee third-party moderation and alleviate the risk of an outstanding dispute erupting into real conflict.
The value of such an agreement is illustrated by the growing tension between Britain and Argentina over offshore oil rights around the Falkland Islands. Recent British drilling efforts, which have yielded a pocket of oil worth potentially an estimated $25 billion, provoked a furious response from Argentinean officials who have long disputed Britain’s claims to sovereignty, not only of the islands themselves, but of the seas around them.
Under UNCLOS, a nation is entitled to “explore and exploit” any natural resources within 200 nautical miles of their shores and in certain circumstances can apply for an extension to 350 nautical miles. By these definitions, there is considerable overlap in British and Argentinean claims, which the Law of the Sea alone is unable to resolve.
In a statement reported by the Times Online last week, Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said that “Argentina energetically refutes what is an illegal attempt to confiscate non-renewable natural resources that are the property of the Argentine people.”
In an earlier bid to slow development, Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner announced in February that any ship coming to or from the disputed islands would have to be granted a permit in order to pass through Argentinean waters, effectively threatening blockade.
The sovereignty of the Falkland Islands has remained a disputed topic for Argentina since the loss of the Falkland Islands War in 1982, made worse by recent financial woes at home and the country’s lack of domestic oil reserves.
Although tensions in the Arctic region are low now, a changing environment and increased competition for energy resources may lead to similar disputes in the polar region – a strong argument for strengthening multilateral institutions like the Arctic Council and UNCLOS sooner rather than later.
Video Credit: “2008 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum w/overlay” courtesy of Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video.