A Path to Responsible Development

By Koivurova, Timo | Policy Options, May 2013 | Go to article overview

A Path to Responsible Development


Koivurova, Timo, Policy Options


Ensuring the proper extraction of resources in the Arctic Ocean requires more than new laws and regulations. It also needs companies to create and abide by their own codes of responsible conduct.

Il ne suffit pas de multiplier les lois et règlements pour assurer l'extraction judicieuse des ressources de l'océan Arctique. Les entreprises doivent aussi élaborer et respecter leurs propres codes de conduite responsable.

At last year's Polar Law Symposium in Rovaniemi, Finland, former Yukon Premier Tony Penikett made an observation about governing that has important implications for how we proceed with the exploitation of hydrocarbons and minerals in the Arctic. Penikett said that the hardest thing he had to do as premier, when a problem was presented to him, was to determine the real nature of the problem.

The proper framing of a policy question is crucial if we are to get the answer right, yet when it comes to how we discuss the exploitation of nonrenewable resources in the Arctic, we seem to be influenced by stories and tales over what is problematic in their extraction. One such narrative formed when Russian submarines planted the country's flag on the seabed of the North Pole in August 2007. News media and some parts of the research community asserted that the starter's gun had fired for an international scramble for circumpolar resources. According to this storyline, climate change was melting Arctic Ocean sea ice, uncovering vast hydrocarbon riches and triggering competition among the Arctic coastal states to occupy the seabed.

Yet this seemingly logical scenario ignored the reality that all Arctic coastal states, including Russia, have engaged in extensive research over where the outermost boundaries of their continental shelves lie. They have done so on the basis of the Law of the Sea (in particular, the Law of the Sea Convention), which presents a reality that is different from widely held perception.

But surely, many people say, there is a commercial scramble for resources in the Arctic as companies seek to tap into those hydrocarbon riches. According to this line of thinking, the Arctic is the new Wild West, where risk takers are rewarded and there are neither rules nor sheriffs to apply law and secure order. The analogy is seductive. Even the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine has published a couple of articles describing the Arctic as the Wild West of the 21st century.

But there are plenty of legal rules in the Arctic - perhaps, even, too many. Most of the Arctic and the estimated hydrocarbon deposits lie within the sovereign and maritime jurisdiction of the Arctic states. Their national rules regulate how natural resources can be prospected and exploited. An enormous body of international rules - such as those that protect the environment and human rights and advance the opening of trade borders - apply in the Arctic.

Furthermore, the Arctic Council, the region's predominant intergovernmental forum, has grown stronger. It has sponsored two international agreements among the eight Arctic states, one on search and rescue (now in force) and the other on oil-spill preparedness and response (likely to be signed at the next ministerial meeting in May).

So if there is no Wild-West-style scramble for resources between states or companies, what, then, is the real problem? …

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