At Arctic Meeting, Clinton Has Chance to Protect the Last Wild Ocean from Becoming Industrial Free-for-All

Today Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar are in Nuuk, Greenland to attend a meeting of the Arctic Council. The council brings together the eight Arctic nations and several indigenous groups to address concerns in the region.

This gathering of Arctic powers—which happens just once every two years—has a new sense of urgency about it.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Considering the rapid pace at which climate change is shaping the environment, we must seize this chance to put protections in place before more ground is lost. Watch this slide show to see the Arctic wildlife waiting in the path of industrial development.

The world’s last wild ocean is on the brink of becoming industrialized: disappearing sea ice is opening up vast areas of the Arctic to oil drilling, shipping, commercial fishing, and mining for the first time. And yet the region is totally unprepared to deal with this coming onslaught.

The current system of Arctic governance was created at time when the cold and ice made major development nearly impossible. The surge of new interest in the Arctic has exposed the limits of the current regime and the need for stronger international governance.

Take offshore oil drilling. No Arctic-specific rules exist to control the surge in drilling that is about to hit the region, and their absence could be devastating. Americans were shocked by how difficult it was to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer. Even though the blowout took place near a heavily developed coastline and close to thousands of clean up vessels, it still took five months to kill the well.

Now imagine if a similar spill occurred in the Arctic Ocean.

Conditions there are dominated by extreme cold, long periods of darkness, hurricane-force storms, and dense fog. It is also covered by ice much of the year. Each one of those elements would make a spill response effort more challenging—the ice alone could trap oil in the water for months at a time—but they are all compounded by remoteness.

The coastal plain bordering the Chukchi Sea has virtually no roads, no shipping ports, and few airports. The Coast Guard is required by law to supervise spill response, and yet the closest Coast Guard base to the leasing sites in the Chukchi Sea is 1,000 miles away. Bringing enough rescue crews and clean up equipment to the Arctic environment would be a staggering challenge. Containing a spill off of Russia would be even more challenging, since that nation lacks any kind of response infrastructure over vast areas of its marine coast.

We must put strong drilling rules in place before an oil disaster strikes. But that’s not all. In order to effectively manage offshore oil development, fishing, shipping, and other emerging industrial activity in the region, we need the Arctic nations to agree on a stronger system of governance.

The Aspen Commission on Arctic Climate Change, on which I have the honor to serve, recently released a blueprint for what that structure might look like. We recommended, for instance, that Arctic governments develop an Arctic Marine Conservation and Sustainable Development Plan that identifies and protects ecologically important hotspots of marine diversity and designates that high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean as a zone of international scientific cooperation. 

We also encourage council participants to adopt strict mandatory standards for industrial fishing, shipping, and offshore gas and oil drilling. But that is only the first step. The effects of all these activities must be assessed and managed in an integrated fashion and critical marine ecosystems must be protected before industrial activities become established.

At the end of April, NRDC and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature released a report identifying for the first time the 13 most vulnerable areas in the Arctic that should be considered for protection as ice melts and industry moves in. This report would provide a good starting point for the council’s conservation planning.  

Finally, we need to establish the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean as a zone of international scientific cooperation. Extractive and polluting activities should be suspended for 10 years while we gain a better understanding of these remote and unique waters. All countries, for instance, should refrain from letting their vessels take fish in the high seas of the central Arctic Oceans where no cross-border regional fishing regulations exist.

Measures such as these will help ensure that industrial activities don’t exacerbate the impacts of climate change and don’t further disrupt the Arctic’s unique environment. I will be watching the meeting closely to see if Secretary Clinton and Secretary Salazar advance these critical goals.