By David L. Phillips
The Arctic -- “The Great North”—is rich in natural resources, including oil and gas, as well as fish stocks. With Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland (under the Danish monarchy), Canada, Russia and the United States racing to capitalize, the Arctic can either be a zone of cooperation or a flash-point for competition and confrontation.
The Arctic covers about eight percent of the Earth's surface, four times the area of all US territories. The Arctic Ocean, spanning 6 million square miles, used to be a solid ice mass. With the seas warming, however, the ice is in retreat. Scientists estimate that the Arctic summer ice cap may entirely disappear by 2050.
Environmentalists are concerned. At the same time, climate change is a windfall for trade, transport, and responsible energy development.
Russia has been quick to capitalize. President Vladimir Putin plans to expand commercial shipping through the Northern Sea Route, an Arctic shortcut between Europe and Asia.
To Russia, the Arctic is a top-tier strategic and commercial interest. Russia is aggressively taking steps to exploit the region’s oil and natural gas reserves, which hold up to 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas.
Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom Neft recently announced four new oil wells in the Arctic Pechora Sea. It plans 28 more oil wells. A new $27 billion liquid natural gas plant is transporting gas to Europe.
In 2012, Russia claimed 460,000 square miles of Arctic ocean floor as an extension of its continental shelf. Russia’s claim violates the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which only recognizes sovereignty 200 nautical miles from a nation’s shoreline.
Russia is not the only expansionist country. Denmark also claims the North Pole sea bottom. Canada will file a claim by 2018, including the North Pole. United States is documenting its claim.
Overlapping claims could lead to conflict. In the Arctic, however, they are handled through the legal mechanism of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
Norway is the first Arctic coastal state to receive a positive recommendation from the Commission. About 80 percent of Norway’s ocean is north of the Arctic Circle. Almost 90 percent of Norway’s export revenues come from sea-based economic activity and resources.
Norway is expanding its search for energy in the Arctic, offering a new round of oil leases in the Barents Sea. The Norwegian oil and gas sector sets the standard with one of the cleanest environmental footprints in the world, safeguarding other industries such as fisheries.
Norwegians are sea-faring people. Fishing is a major industry for Norway and other Arctic stakeholders. In 2017, the total quota for cod stock was set at all-time high figure of nearly a million tons.
In addition to sustainable fishing, Norway is a leader in Arctic transportation. In the summer, 80 percent of all ship traffic in Arctic waters takes place in Norwegian waters. In the winter, 90 percent is in Norwegian waters. Norway is pushing for rules imposing the highest safety and environmental standards on shipping in the Arctic Ocean.
With fishing in the Arctic Ocean an increasingly critical part of the Russian and Norwegian economies, quotas have been established based on research and scientific data. In addition to fisheries, energy cooperation is expanding in the Barents Sea.
Russia and Norway, which share an 800-kilometer border, could be adversaries – or they could face problems jointly. The maritime border between Norway and Russia was settled through bilateral negotiations in 2010. This agreement showed how bilateral negotiations enhance multilateral cooperation to resolve disputes peacefully. Other important agreements include:
- Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Martine Search and Rescue in the Arctic (2011).
- Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (2013)
- Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (2017)
Both Russia and Norway realize that effective solutions rely on true partnership. They work together on search and rescue, management of shared fish stocks, environmental protection, nuclear safety, and Coast Guard and Border Guard activities. People-to-people cooperation across the Norwegian-Russian border is extensive.
According to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “Russia has always considered the Arctic as a territory of mutually respectful dialogue.”
Nonetheless, Russia is the only Arctic country with a robust military presence. Russia has deployed 40 icebreakers. It is building 16 deep-water ports. In 2017, Russia built 13 new airfields in the Arctic and 10 Arctic-based air defense radar stations. It deployed a new brigade, trained in Arctic warfare. In May 2015, it held a massive Arctic war game, involving 250 aircraft and 12,000 troops.
The Arctic Council’s 1996 founding charter, the “Ottawa Declaration” establishes that, “The Arctic Council should not deal with matters related to military security. Decisions of the Arctic Council are to be by consensus of the members.” Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States are founding members. Six NGOs representing Arctic indigenous peoples are also permanent participants. Observers -- Japan, China, India, Singapore and South Korea, as well as NGOs – participate in activities.
Norway is a steady hand exerting a positive influence over other Arctic Council members. The Arctic Council recently established a secretariat in Tromsø, Norway. With Norway’s leadership, the Arctic Council is working towards a range of new agreements including a mandatory polar code in the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
As the ice shelf recedes, opening the Arctic must be done in a responsible way. The Arctic Council will be needed to manage economic disputes from competition over energy development to managing fish stocks. Sea lanes are increasingly crowded. China, a new player in the Arctic, is laying a massive telecom cable along the sea bed. The Arctic Council plays a vital role balancing economic development with environmental protection. The Arctic Economic Council works on economic development that is environmentally sustainable.
Sound policies must be based on research. To this end, Columbia University’s glaciologists and scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are conducting research and contributing to knowledge about the Arctic
Arctic countries recognize they cannot deal with regional challenges on their own. International cooperation is needed to make sure that the Arctic is a region where development is sustainable and where there is a sound balance between commercial interests and environmental concerns.
The Arctic Council is a success story. Dialogue on arctic issues provides a precedent for preventing disputes from escalating into violent conflict.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser to the US State Department and the UN Secretariat.