At a recent meeting of the Arctic Council’s Task Force on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Prevention, several of the representatives from the Arctic states and from Permanent Participants offered some thoughts on why oil pollution prevention in the Arctic is important, and why the Arctic Council Task Force is a good way to tackle the challenge.

Read answers from Senior Arctic Officials Anton Vasiliev and Else Berit Eikeland (co-chairs of the Task Force), as well as from Canadian delegate, Michel Chenier; US delegate, Brian Israel; and Jim Gamble from the Aleut International Association.

"Around the world, interest in the Arctic is clearly growing. Why is the issue of Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Prevention important?”

VASILIEV: That’s quite obvious. Last year the first Arctic oil from the offshore ice/covered area was extracted. So actually there is no more discussion of whether we should produce Arctic oil or not – we are.(1) Still, the Arctic is the Arctic, and there are so many challenges - climatic, technological, ice, etc. And the most important risk with oil production is the risk of a spill. Thanks to work done in the Arctic Council, we know what the consequences could be in the Arctic of an oil spill. There they could be much more dangerous than in other parts of the world. Hence the importance of the issue.

It is also important because, for the people living in the Arctic, there are no other major sources of financial revenues. For this reason, we are motivated to do what we are doing, and that motivation will grow. But again, we should be very cautious about potential ecological dangers. Everybody knows that; I am not saying anything new. But the difference is that we are now less in the phase of talking and more in the phase of acting, so we really have to act collectively to prevent oil spills. Not only Russia is exploring oil in the ice-covered waters of the Arctic Ocean. Norway is doing the same; our Greenland colleagues are doing the same. Even our Icelandic colleagues are doing the same, not to mention Canadian and US colleagues, so we are absolutely in the same boat.

EIKELAND: I think the answer is very clear in the Kiruna Declaration and in the SAOs’ Report to Ministers. The focus of the discussion about the Arctic, globally, has been largely about the melting of the ice, which is making new shipping routes and unexplored natural resources much more accessible. Of course, there is a balance to be struck between environmental issues and economic development, and for Norway it is a key to have sustainable use of resources in the Arctic. In the Norwegian Arctic strategy, it is clearly stated that we aspire to have economic development in our portion of the Arctic. Achieving that would imply growth in shipping and offshore petroleum, as well as other activities.

The Norwegian Arctic is highly populated, and the people living there need jobs in order to live and flourish in their relatively small communities. This has often been forgotten when the Arctic is discussed in the South. The Arctic is foremost for the people who live there. Thus it is of utmost importance to take a sustainable approach to the development of maritime transportation and petroleum resources.

And, of course, oil spill prevention is key to this sustainable development. The core of the Norwegian development strategy is to be ahead, and to have good systems and prevention strategies, such that no oil spills or accidents will happen.

CHENIER: From Canada’s perspective, advancing our collaboration in the Arctic is a top priority. We cannot take the risk of an accident and a malfunction occurring in the Arctic, but it is difficult to measure how much prevention is “enough”. We have to continue to improve the prevention oversight and prevention-related initiatives in all spheres. Some of those spheres are within the full control of governments and regulators, and those are being advanced independently within each jurisdiction that has either offshore oil and gas or commercial shipping as a key commercial interest, but there is also a role for the AC then to serve as the aggregator or the facilitator of bringing together all that relevant expertise. 

GAMBLE: Oil pollution prevention is probably one of the most important issues that we work on within the AC. That might be a strong statement, but for an island region, it is close to the truth. The Aleutian, Pribilof and Commander Islands have a considerable amount of coastline, and we discovered when we were looking at the recent SDWG report on areas of heightened cultural sensitivity that every portion of that coastline has some sort of cultural or subsistence significance. So the consequences of a pollution incident are so layered that it is difficult to express how significant they could be.

They are significant in a sense of food security, because the Aleut people depend on marine resources for their subsistence. Many of these beach and shoreline areas have cultural significance as well, so when an area of coast is soiled with oil, it can have considerable cultural consequences. And for people who live a subsistence lifestyle, it frequently isn’t a question of either/or – subsistence or commercial enterprise. Instead, people are hunting and fishing for subsistence, and a portion of what they catch is for commerce. So an oil pollution incident would affect their livelihoods and their economic well-being, too, in ways that could be life-altering.

Prevention is of key importance. Even if response capability is well established, even if authorities are well prepared to deal with an incident, and despite best efforts at remediation and response, the consequences of a pollution incident could still be devastating.

ISRAEL: As shipping and petroleum production activities grow, so does the risk of oil pollution, with potentially devastating consequences for Arctic ecosystems, economies, and ways of life.  The Arctic States are confronting the common challenge of balancing economic opportunities with the imperative to prevent oil pollution, and there is much to be gained through a sharing of experience, expertise, best practices, and other information.  There are numerous opportunities for the Arctic States to further pollution prevention through cooperation, and the Task Force presents an opportunity to continue the tradition of cooperation among the Arctic States to address common challenges. 

(1) In reference to the Prirazlomnoye platform

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Photo: Strange Comings & Goings in Elliot Bay / By Dave Nakayama / Creative Commons BY / Link to original