Few people around the world have more closely watched the unfolding Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster than those concerned about the environmental impact of oil and gas development on a swiftly thawing Arctic Ocean. A similar-sized offshore spill would likely have even more profound consequences in the Arctic, a pristine environment that is home to a wide variety of seabirds, marine mammals, and fish. And cleanup efforts would be hamstrung for parts of the year by sea ice and the lack of the well-developed spill-response infrastructure that exists along the Gulf of Mexico.
With numerous nations and oil companies preparing for the day when widespread oil exploration will be possible in the Arctic Ocean, the Gulf spill has crystallised the fears of conservationists and native people in the Far North. And the prospect of such a disaster in the Arctic has brought to the fore a question that regional experts have debated for decades: Should the Arctic be protected by the same sort of international treaty that has safeguarded Antarctica for nearly half a century?
In late April, in the wake of the spill, the conservation group WWF released three lengthy reports (PDF 1.99MB) calling for the establishment of an “Arctic Ocean Framework Convention” that would lead to formal regulation of fisheries, shipping, and oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean.
“The melting of the Arctic ice is opening a new ocean, bringing new possibilities for commercial activities in a part of the world that has previously been inaccessible,” said Lasse Gustavsson, incoming executive conservation director for WWF-International.
Until recently, the Arctic Ocean - locked in ice year-round, which prevents maritime passage through the region and inhibits most resource exploitation - has not needed a strict regime of protection. Regional issues have been resolved by the intergovernmental Arctic Council, which has had non-binding authority to handle disputes among the eight Arctic states.
But WWF and a sizeable number of politicians, scientists, and academics are calling for a new form of governance in the Arctic Ocean, which could be ice-free in summer within two decades, opening up the region to an unprecedented surge of shipping, fishing, and hydrocarbon development.
“Few - if any - seriously question any longer that the Arctic Ocean meltdown has now become irreversible,” said one of the WWF reports. “The governance and regulatory regime that currently exists in the Arctic may have been adequate for a hostile environment that allows very little human activity for most of the year. But when the Arctic Ocean becomes increasingly similar to regional seas in other parts of the world for longer and longer parts of the year, adequacy cannot be assumed and reform of the regime is indispensable.”
Yet as sorely needed as an international agreement on managing the Arctic may be, there is no consensus on what an Arctic treaty would look like or whether a treaty or charter is the best way to manage and protect economic, environmental, cultural, and security interests in the region. The debate has broken down into two camps, those - such as WWF - that prefer a “hard-law” approach of new treaties and protocols, and those who advocate a “soft-law” approach of regional co-operation and management under existing regulations, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Most everyone agrees, however, that failure to co-operate in a more meaningful way will result in a series of chaotic scenarios that could result in environmental disaster and heightened tensions among Arctic states.
The idea of drafting a treaty to deal with Arctic issues is nothing new. University of Toronto political scientist Franklyn Griffiths came up with a proposal in 1979 that would have set up a demilitarised zone in the Arctic in which polar nations would co-operate in areas of pollution control and scientific study. Lincoln Bloomfield, the former director of Global Issues for the National Security Council in the United States, expanded on that idea with a much broader proposal two years later. The Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev gave the concept international credibility in 1987 when he called for a treaty on co-operation in the Arctic.
While the concept has evolved, it has never been able to cut through the complexity of the issues in the Arctic. The Antarctic Treaty, which went into effect in 1961, covered an uninhabited continent (save for scientific bases) that was almost entirely covered in ice. The Antarctic Treaty and ensuing protocols, signed by nations representing 80 per cent of the world’s population, set aside the southernmost continent as a scientific preserve. The treaty also bans military activities and prohibits resource exploitation. Few international agreements have worked as well.
Unlike Antarctica, there are people living in the Arctic. Nearly 2 million people in Russia, 130,000 in Canada, and a little more than a million total in Greenland, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries, and the Faeroe Islands reside above the Arctic Circle. The cultural and economic interests of these people would have to be accounted for in any future treaty. And many of them, including the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and Alaska, won a certain degree of self-governing powers when they became landowners through various claims processes.
Maritime territorial boundaries in the Arctic, including the status of the Northwest Passage through Canada, have also not been resolved. Canada maintains that the passage, which for the past two summers has been navigable for the first time in recorded history, is part of its territorial waters. The United States and the European Union claim that it is an international strait. And although all of the lands and islands of the Arctic are under the control of Arctic states, the core of the Arctic Ocean remains part of the high seas.