25th Sep 2020

Arctic 'no sanctuary' from drilling, says EU

  • The Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by as early as 2030 (Photo: NN -

As the Arctic ice melts, Europe would be foolish to regard the region as a sanctuary that must be protected from resource extraction, the European Commission has said. Meanwhile, both Russia and Canada are also issuing increasingly bellicose statements about their claims to the planet's northern regions.

Drilling for oil in the fragile northern environment must go ahead with European financial and political support for the sake of EU energy security, energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs declared on Friday (19 September) at a debate on the subject in Brussels.

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"You cannot say [the Arctic] is a sanctuary," said the commissioner "... otherwise, where will will we get our energy from?"

Instead, the commission "should help countries who have this resource under their jurisdiction to develop it in a sustainable way," said Mr Piebalgs, adding that for this, there needed to be "clear environmental rules and impact assessments".

While according to the historical record, there's been ice in the Arctic in the summer for at least 16 million years, scientists believe that between 2040 and 2100 the world will regularly see an ice-free Arctic Ocean during the summer months. Some scientists argue that such an event might occur by 2030.

Speaking at the same debate, organised by the Friends of Europe think-tank, Helge Lund, the CEO of Norway's StatoilHydro, the biggest offshore oil and gas company in the world, agreed, pointing out that declining fields on the Norwegian coast leave Europe with no choice.

"We are making much smaller discoveries than 10 years ago," he said. "The 'big elephants' do not exist any more on the Norwegian coast."

Mr Lund did however say that any such exploration had to have "flawless environmental behaviour," but that work would not be able to be performed without "the appropriate political framework conditions" and financial support.

Putting forward the environmentalist perspective at the debate, Stefan Singer of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), was horrified at thought of drilling when "the Arctic is dying," and called such thinking "perverse."

"The very materials you sell for profit are causing the reasons why increasingly have access [to the Arctic]," he said.

Mr Singer argued that the world was reaching "the end of easily accessible oil and gas resources, so there's a rush to the final frontiers."

His organisation wants to see "no drilling and no commercial exploitation of the Arctic."

Instead, there should be an Arctic treaty like the 1959 Antarctic Treaty that set aside the continent as a scientific preserve without recognition of national claims and banning military activity on that continent.

However, warned Mr Singer: "The treaty protecting the Antarctic is running out, and we will see a rush to exploit the Antarctic too."

The melting ice cap is pushing Arctic issues up the Brussels policy agenda.

Earlier this month, the EU's fisheries and maritime affairs commissioner, Joe Borg told a meeting of the Nordic Council - which brings together Nordic countries, both members and non-members of the 27-country bloc that the receding ice brings "a first time opportunity" to exploit new transport routes and "draw upon the wealth of untapped natural resources in the Arctic."

Military questions

While the commercial side of the debate over the race for the Arctic rages, the military question is never far away.

In Spring, the commission together with the EU's chief diplomat, Javier Solana, published a seven-page paper that mapped out the latest thinking from Brussels on the security implications of climate change.

The document underlined the risks and opportunities presented by the melting Arctic, alongside concerns about increased numbers of migrants, territorial disputes, water shortages in Israel and decreases in crop yields in the broader Middle East, and argued that the EU should boost its civil and military capacities to respond to "serious security risks" resulting from catastrophic climate change.

In August last year, a Russian submarine planted a flag on the Arctic sea floor underneath the North Pole, while on Wednesday (17 September), during a meeting of the country's security council, President Dmitry Medvedev set in motion plans to claim part of the Arctic shelf as national territory.

The move will "turn the Arctic into Russia's resource base of the 21st century," he said at the meeting.

Meanwhile, Conservative Canadian Prime Minister, whose nation also has competing claims on the north, has also pledged to assert Arctic sovereignty while campaigning ahead of the country's 14 October federal election.

"We'll be present with eyes in the sky, ships in the northern passage, and boots on the Tundra," he said this weekend.

Military issue 'overblown'

Also at the Arctic debate was Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, who told the EUobserver that the race for the Arctic had been very much overblown, not least by the media: "These parties shouldn't find conflict where it doesn't exist."

"I don't think increasing the capacities of the oil and gas industry to explore the Arctic should in any way linked to military questions," he added.

Under international law, each of the five countries with Arctic territory within their jurisdiction - Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russian and the United States - own a 320-kilometre region that extends north from their respective shorelines.

The agreement is to be reviewed under UN auspices in May 2009.


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