June 28, 2008

International Experts Warn of ‘No-Holds-Barred’ Arctic Resource Race


A high-powered group of international experts is warning a "no-holds-barred" race for Arctic resources could shape up unless countries around the world move faster to reach agreements on development, safety and environmental standards.

A new report by 40 experts from six different countries spells out four scenarios for the future of the top of the world - including one in which the Arctic becomes increasingly militarized as demand for energy, minerals and even fresh water outpaces and overwhelms diplomacy.

"This is a world in which many international players anxiously move to outwit competitors and secure tomorrow's resources today," reads the report, produced for the eight-nation Arctic Council. "Political tensions are high and brinksmanship is the name of the game."

That scenario is already well on its way to becoming reality, said Lawson Brigham, the main author of the report and the head of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

"It's an Arctic economic race," said Brigham.

"I don't think it leads to conflict. I think it leads to a dysfunctional system that leads to increased pollution or very limited environmental protection standards, so it's a bit of a Wild West development."

Diplomats from nations around the Arctic Ocean have long said that disputes over who controls which parts of the Arctic seabed will be settled by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But that process will take more than a decade. Nations have until 2013 to submit their claims, and decisions aren't expected until 2020 at the earliest.

"We don't want to have that process mask or undermine the development of other arrangements," Brigham said.

The world's largest zinc mine and copper-nickel mine are already in the Arctic. A vast iron mine, complete with its own port, is planned for Baffin Island.

Recently, BP bid $1.18-billion for exploration rights in Canada's Beaufort Sea. In February, Shell paid the U.S. government $2.1 billion for oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea and last summer ExxonMobil Canada bid $585 million for other exploration rights off the coast of the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

"Look, the global maritime industry is already in the Arctic," said Brigham, the former head of planning for the U.S. Coast Guard. "We need to get our act together here to protect the Arctic Ocean.

"The diplomats are saying, 'We got 'er all under control.' I'm not sure about all that."

Several Arctic nations may already be hedging their bets.

A Russian general said last week that large-scale military exercises would be held in the Arctic to uphold that country's claim to the region's resources. Earlier, the governor of a Russian Arctic region said his country must be ready in case the UN convention doesn't solve all disputes.

Canada plans a significant expansion to its Arctic military capacity, including up to eight new ships and a new deepwater refuelling facility for naval vessels.

About 5,000 American troops recently participated in exercises in Alaska. Even Norway, in a white paper released in March, plans to reorient its military around its Arctic interests.

Still, Brigham sees little chance of armed conflict. He says problems are much more likely to arise from economic activity getting ahead of international efforts to ensure travel and development are conducted under consistent environmental and safety standards.

Police action against illegal fishing or unsafe shipping is far more likely, said Brigham.

"When I see a 4,000-passenger cruise ship coming into the Arctic, I say, well, who's regulating that? What's the safety net? Are they sailing in uncharted waters? And the answer is, yes."