Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Abdicating the Arctic

Tomorrow, the Arctic Council, comprised of Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway, Denmark, and three other countries bordering the arctic, will sign a treaty assigning search and rescue responsibilities in the high arctic. While the Council has said the practical S&R boundaries should not be interpreted as legal borders for other purposes, Canada should move quickly to avoid the impression that it is abdicating responsibility for the arctic.

As Paul Koring noted in his article in this morning’s Globe and Mail, the Council “explicitly accepted that the search-and-rescue boundaries won’t be used as precedents in the tangle of unresolved boundary disputes and overlapping claims in the resource-rich top of the world.” The problem for Canada lies in the final six words of that statement: resource-rich top of the world. Inevitably, disputes regarding resource ownership, recovery rights, and clean-up responsibilities will arise. Some tangible set of conditions will have to be used to set precedent for ownership, rights, and responsibilities, and it is in this regard that the present treaty is fraught with dangers for Canada.

Canada has been assigned an approximate 80-degree section of the 360-degree arctic region. Over forty percent of the arctic is given to Russia, with smaller pieces of the pie-shaped area going to the United States, Norway, and Denmark.

Since the search and rescue boundaries are practical in nature, they should be understood as fluid. If Canada, due to superior search and rescue capabilities, is able to assist with the rescue of sailors from a ship sinking in U. S.-controlled waters, the United States will be unlikely to turn down the offer of assistance. Such superior abilities could be used in future negotiations to argue for an enhanced Canadian presence in the arctic, and perhaps even an expansion of Canadian boundaries in future disputes over resources.

The problem is that Canada is ill-prepared for S&R work in the arctic compared to other nations. Norway, which already has a strong arctic presence in its oil drilling operations, has developed formidable resources for efficient work in the arctic. Russia has long possessed significant cold-water capabilities. Canada, according to Mr. Koring’s article, “has no dedicated search-and-rescue assets based north of the Arctic Circle...The nearest dedicated search-and-rescue aircraft are four 40-year-old Twin Otter utility aircraft based in Yellowknife.” It is not difficult to envision scenarios in which Norway and the United States will be best equipped for S&R operations in territories for which Canada is now responsible. With capabilities entirely inadequate to upholding of Canadian responsibilities, countries wishing to exploit arctic resources should have little difficulty in prevailing over weaker Canadian interests, presence, and abilities in the arctic.

I hope that Canada is not willing to so easily cede resource ownership and development rights. If the Harper government wishes to continue ignoring the high arctic, we should anticipate a high potential for consequences far more serious than simple loss of revenue to oil, minerals, and other resources. The larger concern is the health of the arctic itself, and it is here that we can find significant precedent that ought to raise our level of concern.

In April, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. For three months the open well spewed over eight million litres (53,000 barrels) of oil per day into the gulf. Some five million barrels (800 million litres) of oil were released into the ocean before the well was finally capped. The major problem in the capping effort was the inadequacy of the blowout preventer mechanisms installed in the cap, including severe design flaws that prevented the blowout preventer from working as specified. Only a few short months after the well was capped, the United States government approved the resumption of drilling in the gulf. Unbelievably, no blowout preventer design changes were required. Oil companies that wish to drill are allowed to use the same inadequate technology that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

We should anticipate that the United States, with its long-established contempt for environmental health, will have no more concern for the consequences of arctic drilling than it has consistently demonstrated in warmer waters. While this may pose only short-term consequences in tropical regions, a laissez-faire attitude toward pollution in the arctic is likely to prove deadly, and costly not just to Canada, but to the entire world.

Few species of flora and fauna are found in frigid arctic waters. Oil-consuming bacteria thrive in warm tropical water, but they find the cold water close to the pole a bit too hostile. If oil spills in the arctic, it is likely to remain there for a long, long time, causing severe, long-term damage in a fragile environment. Since the arctic region has effects on weather, plant and animal life, and many other natural phenomena far out of proportion to its size, the effects of arctic fouling are likely to have severe repercussions throughout the world, and especially for countries bordering the arctic.

It is time for Canada to beef up its arctic presence. We cannot allow irresponsible countries, like Russia and the United States, to pollute the arctic at Canadian expense, to the detriment of the entire world.

May 11, 2011

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