2015 was a momentous year for the Arctic. The U.S., which Rob Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary, once called a “reluctant Arctic power,” made a splash in the North. The U.S. took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada in April, while in August, President Barack Obama traveled to Alaska and became the first sitting president to visit the Arctic. In the 49th state, Shell’s exploratory oil well in the Chukchi Sea came up dry, prompting the corporation’s exit from the Arctic offshore for the time being. With all the excitement surrounding the American Arctic, especially from the perspective of the States, it’s easy to forget that there were a number of other important developments in the region in 2015, too, from elections in Canada to mining in Greenland.
As December drew to a close, I spoke with Eilis Quinn, a journalist with Radio Canada International and manager of Eye on the Arctic, for a radio show that will broadcast on January 8. We discussed one word to summarize events in 2015 in the Arctic, the three biggest stories to unfold in the region, the most underreported story, and three things to watch out for in the Arctic in 2016. The radio interview is available to stream online, while a longer written version is below.
The Arctic in 2015: “Hopeful”
One word to describe the Arctic in 2015 might be “hopeful.” During President Obama’s trip to Alaska, he said in an interview with Rolling Stone: “I don’t want to get paralyzed by the magnitude of this thing. I’m a big believer that imagination can solve problems.” These lines almost sound like they could have come out of his book, The Audacity of Hope. The belief that hope and imagination can solve climate change is only one part of the equation, though. The other part has to come from a serendipitous combination of action and inaction: the world should act to put in place a global climate agreement, while it should probably refrain from oil drilling in the Arctic. In light of the minor success of COP21 in Paris and Shell’s withdrawal from the Arctic, the word “hopeful” might just be an apt word to use to describe northern developments last year.
In other hopeful news, relative peace continued between Russia and the West in the Arctic, minus a tense moment or two between Canada and Russia, the two territorial giants in the region. This perhaps promises that the Arctic will continue to remain a region of unique cooperation even as tensions persist between Russia and the West in Crimea and the Middle East.
The Arctic’s three biggest stories
- US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council
- The U.S. took over chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada under the banner of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, Responses.” Its agenda is more climate-focused than Canada’s, but it is also continuing Canadian initiatives like the Arctic Economic Council. Related to the U.S. takeover, Obama visited the Alaskan Arctic as mentioned above. In 2016, look for more activities in the U.S. Arctic as the country goes into what will be its only full year as Arctic Council chair. One event to watch might be the Senior Arctic Officials meeting in October in Portland, Maine, a state that is increasingly playing its Arctic card.
- Shell’s retreat from the Alaskan offshore
- After sinking $7 billion into Alaska, Shell announced that its well had come up dry in September. This turn of events was hugely disappointing to many in Alaska, where 90% of the state’s discretionary spending is funded by oil revenues. Senator Lisa Murkowski called it “a very sad day for Alaska.” Environmentalists, however, were heartened by Shell’s retreat from the Arctic. To cap off a bad year for Big Oil in the Arctic, Obama cancelled oil leases for 2016 and 2017,with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell citing “current market conditions and low industry interest.”
- COP 21
- After 20 years of UN climate negotiations, in December in Paris, world leaders succeeded in signing an agreement on global climate change. The 195 countries who signed the universal and binding agreement will now endeavor to limit warming to 2°C and possibly even make an effort to keep average global warming below 1.5°C.
- The disheartening outcome of this, however, is that the agreement consists of a lot of potentially empty promises, with no enforcement mechanisms to ensure that countries reduce emissions. Even if global warming is miraculously limited to 2°C, the Arctic still won’t return to pre-industrial environmental conditions anytime soon due. Positive feedback cycles that are already in place will likely cause sea ice to continue to melt and temperatures to rise.
One underreported story
- The implications of Justin Trudeau’s election as Prime Minister for the Canadian Arctic
- Aside from a couple of pieces such as this one in the Pacific Standard (and also, plug, my own), the press didn’t write too much about what Justin Trudeau’s election means for the Canadian Arctic. This is probably because his Arctic policy is still relatively undeveloped.
- Similar to what former Prime Minister Stephen Harper probably would have done, Trudeau encouraged bolstering NATO’s presence in the Arctic when speaking on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Unlike Harper, however, Trudeau is paying more attention to social welfare issues in the Canadian Arctic, such as by vowing to increase the Northern tax break. Trudeau, perhaps less of an Arctic stuntman than Harper, criticized his “annual photo-op” during a campaign stop in Nunavut. As a result, it’s unclear if Trudeau will continue Harper’s highly visible pro-sovereignty agenda up North. He may do so, but perhaps in a less muscular manner that’s more focused on Arctic people rather than Arctic projects.
- In the next couple of years, we’ll see some of Harper’s projects finally come to fruition like the opening of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station and the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk all-weather highway. Time will tell whether Trudeau will undertake any big-ticket Arctic infrastructure projects of his own.
Three things to watch for in the Arctic in 2016
- Mining in Greenland
- Two years ago, the Greenlandic parliament overturned the ban on uranium mining. This has paved the way for mining companies to come in and express interest, but operations are only now beginning to pick up speed. Canadian mining company True North Gems is beginning to extract ore and waste rock at its ruby and pink sapphire deposit in SW Greenland, while Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME) will commence a mining license application for its Kvanefjeld project, which holds rare earth minerals and uranium deposits.
- The price of oil
- In September 2015, Goldman Sachs analysts predicted that the price of oil could fall to $20 a barrel. Today, NYMEX Crude sat at $37, already a big drop from around $50 at the end of 2014, when people were already being cautious about the future of Arctic oil. A continued drop in prices could seriously jeopardize the economic feasibility of Norway and Russia’s continued push northward into Arctic offshore oil fields. In offshore northern Norway, Eni’s delay-plagued Goliat field will only have its first delivery next year – not a day too soon for a company that would have likely have preferred to come on-stream years ago.
- Climate change
- Climate change continued to heat up the Arctic, where average land temperatures from October 2014 – September 2015 were the warmest since 1900. Sea ice extent in 2015 was the fourth lowest on record. El Niño, which is mostly discussed in terms of its effects at more southern latitudes like in California, will affect the Arctic though, too. As Andrea Thompson writes at Climate Central, the warm weather phenomenon has already prevented Antarctic sea ice from growing even more than it has done in past years. Later on this year in the Northern Hemisphere, El Niño could warm the oceans and possibly trigger increased melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
- Another issue to keep an eye this year in the Arctic concerns ocean acidification. Though most discussion of climate change focuses on the pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the ocean soaks up 30-40% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. The Arctic Ocean soaks up a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide because the greenhouse gas is more soluble in colder waters. The resulting chemical changes in the world’s oceans could devastate phytoplankton populations, and decline of these little sea creatures could generate knock-on effects on marine ecosystems in the Arctic and elsewhere.
So, that was 2015 in the Arctic: hopeful year for climate activists and scientists, mining interests in Greenland, liberals in Canada and the U.S. – and not so hopeful for oil companies.
Listen to my full interview with Eilis Quinn of Radio Canada International here.