Shell's Kulluk rig grounded in Alaska. (c) Reuters
Shell’s Kulluk rig grounded in Alaska. (c) Reuters

Greenpeace Canada has obtained a draft of the Arctic Council’s Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution that officials have claimed is genuine. In a press release on Greenpeace’s website, Christy Ferguson, Arctic project leader for Greenpeace Canada, called the 21-page agreement “effectively useless.” She stated,

“Despite promises that this would be the first legally-binding agreement of its kind, it fails to outline any essential response equipment, methods for capping wells, or cleaning up oiled habitat and wildlife, relying instead on vague statements that Arctic nations should ‘ensure’ they try and take ‘appropriate steps within available resources.'”

I read through the draft agreement, and it is certainly vague. Yet this isn’t too surprising. The first treaty signed under the auspices of the Arctic Council, the 2011 Search and Rescue Agreement, is similarly unspecific. First of all, any agreement nowadays that is only 21 pages is likely not going to contain many specifics. At the opposite extreme, the health care bill in the United States is 906 pages long. Given the complexity of negotiating the legal systems of eight countries, a solid and detailed treaty explaining how to handle oil pollution in the Arctic would simply have to be more than 21 pages long.

Second, even Greenpeace recognizes the difficulty with getting the eight Arctic Council member states to agree to any binding regulations within their own territories. A statement submitted before the ongoing two-day Arctic Environment Ministers meeting in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, reads, “Clearly, individual states retain sovereignty over activities in their territorial waters and economic zones.” This is part of the problem with the Arctic, where issues of national identity, sovereignty, and natural resources are tightly bundled. Countries are loathe to give up power over how to develop their own oil and gas resources. At the end of the day, the state is still the primary political entity in the Arctic, to which the Council is subordinate.  Underscoring this point, Article 4 issues: “Each Party shall maintain a national system for responding promptly and effectively to oil pollution incidents.” Thus, the rules in the U.S. could differ drastically from the rules of Russia. The treaty has not yet done anything to standardize crisis response.

I think it’s too early to give up entirely on the treaty’s potential, though. As I mentioned, the SAR Treaty is similarly ambiguous, but what began as seemingly empty platitudes are becoming, over time, more fine-tuned through additional meetings. As I discussed in a blog post last April, about one year after the signing of the SAR Treaty, the chiefs of defense from all eight Arctic states met in Canada and decided to make the meeting an annual event. Cooperation on oil and gas spill response is not going to happen over night, but at least the treaty is a step in the right direction towards harmonizing response mechanisms. Indeed, Article 14 of the oil spill treaty mandates that a meeting happen no later than one year after the treaty’s signing. At this and additional meetings, discussions over how to implement the treaty will take place, and they will hopefully develop more specifics. Article 21 explains that operational guidelines will be created over time, so perhaps the complaints Greenpeace has about there not being any particulars on capping wells, for instance, will be addressed.

One of the real weaknesses that I do note with the draft, which is not expected to change much before the ministerial meeting in May, is the following: “Implementation of this Agreement, except for Article 10, shall be subject to the capabilities of the Parties and the availability of relevant resources.” This means that the agreement is essentially meaningless if a country doesn’t have the right level and mix of capabilities to implement the regulations. Whatever is written down on paper is immaterial if it’s not backed by real capabilities and infrastructure. It doesn’t matter if a country is obligated to fly a helicopter over the spill site within 24 hours of the occurrence, for instance, if it simply doesn’t have the equipment to do so. Therefore, a step in the right direction would be mandating that countries provide needed resources in times of crisis. Countries already do this voluntarily: just think about how many countries offered to send aid when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, or how many countries’ militaries sent assistance to coastal areas in southeast Asia after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Similar voluntary sharing of resources happens in the Arctic, too: Russia provided a tanker to help deliver energy supplies to Nome this past winter – though in this case, the company that was supposed to deliver the fuel to Alaska, Vitus Marine, paid the Russian shipping company for Renda’s services. If the Arctic Council were able to have nearby countries send whatever resources they could in a time of crisis, provided they weren’t needed in the home country at the time, this would go a long way towards ensuring that appropriate resources would be directed in a timely manner. In an ideal world, there could even be some mechanism for billing the responsible oil company for ultimately paying the other countries for whatever resources they provided. Yet this is probably a too radical step for now.

USNS Mercy near Indonesia.
USNS Mercy near Indonesia – an example of foreign resources and capability being provided in a time of crisis.
The CGC Healy and the Russian tanker Renda, near Nome.
The CGC Healy and the Russian tanker Renda, near Nome.

Lastly, it’s interesting how countries decide on the geographical extent of where the oil spill treaty will apply. Canada will apply the rules in maritime areas north of 60°, while Norway will apply them north of the Arctic Circle. At 66°, this is a full 414 miles farther north than Canada’s line. Canada uses the 60° line likely because it just makes sense, for this is the line of latitude demarcating the southern border of the country’s three territories. Norway, though, prefers to use the Arctic Circle as the southern border perhaps because the farther north the treaty begins, the less it has to worry about implementing it farther south, where most of its offshore wells currently lie. Still, it’s important to note that the Lofoten Islands lie just north of the Arctic Circle, so any oil drilling here in future would fall under the new treaty’s rules.

A funny side note: on the agenda for the Arctic Environment Ministers meeting in Jukkasjärvi, the first day’s meeting venue is listed as: “The Kiruna mine, 550 m below ground.” Delegates are convening at the Ice Hotel on the second day. The Arctic is certainly a good field to go into if you’re interested in having meetings in bizarre locations.

News Links

Greenpeace slams Arctic Council’s oil spill response plan,” CBC

“Proposed Arctic Council treaty on oil spills ‘useless,’ Greenpeace says,” The Globe and Mail

“Arctic nations’ oil spill plans too vague -environmentalists,” Reuters

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