Obama and Trudeau Set a New Standard for Arctic Stewardship

Yesterday marked a gigantic step forward for marine conservation and the Arctic. The parallel announcements by President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt new offshore oil and gas leasing in Arctic waters set a new standard for Arctic stewardship and international ocean conservation.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet. The accompanying loss of sea ice is already affecting  species—like narwhal, walrus, and polar bears—that depend on sea ice for feeding, reproduction and other life functions. On top of this, disappearing sea ice is opening large areas of the ocean up to oil and gas extraction, shipping, commercial fishing and other industrial development. Accidents, oil spills, air and water pollution, invasive species, fishing, underwater noise, and a host of other impacts related to industrial development threaten a fragile region already under severe stress from climate change. 

Scientists tell us that the single most important thing we can do to help vulnerable ocean ecosystems adapt to climate change is to minimize other stressors. The announcements made last night by President Obama and PM Trudeau will do exactly that—dramatically reduce the huge impacts of offshore oil and gas development.

One of those impacts is oil spills (my colleague Niel Lawrence has blogged about the high likelihood and fate of major spills in the US Arctic).  But it doesn’t stop there. Offshore drilling and production generate massive amounts of air and water pollution. The crushing noise emitted during seismic exploration and drilling can have significant effects on whales, fish, birds and other marine life.  And the onshore industrial infrastructure needed to support offshore oil—pipelines, processing facilities, storage tanks, etc.—can have major and lasting effects on coastal ecosystems. The actions taken yesterday by the two North American leaders will reduce those threats dramatically.

It is critically important for the other Arctic nations with coastlines on or near the Arctic Ocean—Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Russia—act to follow the lead of Canada and the US and protect their Arctic waters. That is because, in the fluid environment of the ocean, oil spills, water pollution and underwater noise don’t respect political boundaries, nor do fish, whales, birds and other marine wildlife.  What happens in one country’s Arctic waters can easily affect the waters of other countries. A major spill off Norway could easily affect Russia for example, and noise and disturbance from development in Greenland could have significant effects in nearby Canada.

Coordinated international action to protect sensitive Arctic waters from a variety of threats is essential. Yesterday’s joint US-Canada announcement marks an important recognition of that, and lays the groundwork for an ambitious international effort to protect this unique and fragile corner of our planet. The upcoming Arctic Council Ministerial in May offers a terrific opportunity for other Arctic nations to step up and take action to protect their Arctic waters.  There isn't a moment to lose.

See related blogs by my colleagues reacting to other aspects of the joint initiatives announced yesterday.