Saturday, May 14, 2011

320. The Arctic: Open for Business

By Steven Meyers, The New York Times, May 12, 2011
NUUK, Greenland — The eight Arctic nations pledged Thursday to create international protocols to prevent and clean up offshore oil spills in areas of the region that are becoming increasingly accessible to exploration because of a changing climate.
The Arctic Council — the United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden — said the protocols would be modeled on a separate agreement signed here in Nuuk on Thursday to coordinate search-and-rescue operations over 13 million square miles of ocean.
The search-and-rescue pact is the first legally binding agreement adopted by the council, which was created in 1996 to address challenges and opportunities in the Arctic spurred by the retreat of sea ice — like growing oil and gas exploration or increasing traffic of cargo and cruise ships, which have doubled the number of tourists in the Arctic in recent years.
The council’s actions, officials said, reflected a maturation of a regional group that has been criticized for not acting more aggressively to address the myriad issues of a drastically changing Arctic. The pursuit of natural resources has sharpened regional competition and raised the possibilities of pollution and environmental catastrophes.
A senior diplomat from one of the member nations, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the council’s governments were “running behind events” like increasing shipping and new exploration licenses across the Arctic.
Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first United States secretary of state to attend the council’s biennial meeting of ministers, held this year in the capital of Greenland, the largely autonomous region of Denmark, where warming trends have been felt acutely. She was accompanied by the secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, and Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska. “We are going to raise the visibility of Arctic issues back in the United States so that we can begin to take the steps that are necessary for us,” Mrs. Clinton said in a news conference aboard a boat in Godthab Fjord, north of Nuuk. She reiterated the administration’s call to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty.
The treaty, stalled in the Senate for decades, provides the international basis for settling territorial claims in the Arctic, and the failure to ratify it has left the United States at a disadvantage as the other Arctic nations stake out vast regions as exclusive economic zones. Ratification, she said, was “way overdue.”
Domestic politics in the United States have often undercut American diplomacy, especially when it comes to reducing emissions blamed for climate change, something Mrs. Clinton herself acknowledged later in remarks with Denmark’s foreign minister. “It’s been challenging in our political system to take the kinds of actions that we know are dictated by the science and by what we see in front of our eyes,” she said.
Having failed to win approval for legislation to reduce emissions, she said, the Obama administration would continue to pursue executive and regulatory steps to address climate change.
The agreement governing search-and-rescue efforts — though a treaty — was signed by the United States under executive authority and thus does not require Senate ratification. It divides the vast Arctic region into eight zones and puts each nation in charge of coordinating any rescue efforts that might be required in some of the planet’s most remote and formidable conditions.
“None of the Arctic nations today have adequate resources for search and rescue in the Arctic in light of the increasing activity that is already” happening, David A. Balton, a deputy assistant secretary who negotiated the agreement for the American side, said before Thursday’s meeting.
The same is true for the prospect of a catastrophic oil spill. United States officials said that the push for negotiated protocols for oil exploration in the Arctic stemmed from the searing experience of the Deepwater Horizon disaster last year. The administration is considering requests for exploration off Alaska.
How expansive and binding the protocols for preventing a similar disaster in the Arctic are remains to be seen as the Arctic Council begins negotiations. “At a minimum,” Mr. Salazar said, “what I think we can probably do is aim at getting to a set of best practices that can be used in oil and gas exploration and production in the Arctic region.”

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