by Guest Blogger: Jessica Shadian

Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar traveled to Alaska’s North Slope and said that drilling new exploratory wells in the region would have to wait until more was known about the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Salazar raised some valid concerns, specifically that the challenging conditions in the Arctic would could make it particularly difficult to launch a spill response, should the need arise.

But Salazar also erred in suggesting that the United States had the power to protect the Arctic from a devastating oil spill. While the presence of oil and gas interest in U.S. waters in the Arctic is a discussion worth pursuing, the undeniable truth is that regardless of the policy the U.S. adopts in the Arctic waters it controls, a growing number of oil and gas projects in the region are already moving forward.


–Just last month, new Arctic drilling commenced off the coast of Greenland following a gas discovery by Scotland’s Cairn Energy. At a time that Greenland is striving to win greater independence from Denmark, many of its political leaders are viewing oil and gas revenues as the source of that independence. An official at Greenland’s bureau of Minerals and Petroleum described the gas find as “an appetizer for all oil companies to come here and do more exploration.”

–Arctic oil and gas drilling has been underway off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland in Canada for more than a decade.

–One of the world’s largest natural gas fields is the Shtokman field in Russian waters in the Barents Sea. Although harsh Arctic conditions have so far delayed development of this massive field, interest continues to intensify, and eventual realization is likely.

–A recent border resolution between Russia and Norway opens the door to new development projects in the near future where a wealth of offshore resources are said to exist. Russia has also made clear that its future economy lies in Arctic oil and gas exploration and Norway is likely to move further north into its Arctic waters as its southern fields dry up.

In other words, while the U.S. moves to limit Arctic drilling, oil and gas exploration and production in the Arctic is alive and well. As many well-intentioned groups pursue anti-Arctic oil and gas campaigns, they are diverting the focus from what would probably be a more effective approach: working to ensure that the multiple national interests that are drilling in the Arctic adhere to a strict set of safety regulations, as well as commitments to the communities in which they operate. Although the Arctic Council is expected at some point to try to consider offshore drilling from a pan-Arctic perspective, to date there has been little coordinated effort among different countries.

And although many different countries control different regions of the Arctic, potential environmental calamities would know no borders. If a spill were to occur off the coast of Greenland, it would most likely spread to Canadian waters. While Salazar appears to be taking a tough stance to protect the Arctic, a more practical approach would be to encourage the creation of a regional governance system for coordinating safety regulations and oil spill response measures.

This sort of system could also create the framework for making smaller, local interests a part of the governance system. Many of the parties that own or have rights to receive royalties from offshore development are neither private corporations nor state entities, but rather, local indigenous governments. The Inuit, for example have autonomy over a large stretch of coastline in the Arctic Archipelago, and are also able to negotiate directly with industries on certain resource development matters.

These systems of regional governance are often complex. The key detail to remember is that they do exist. When you consider them along with the larger national governments that control different parts of the Arctic, you get a multitude of groups that can drill for oil and gas in the region, and have a lot of incentive to do so, regardless of the policy the United States adopts. Clearly the U.S. has an opportunity to lead the discussion about safety and responsible resource development in the Arctic. But it would be wrong – indeed negligent — to believe that the U.S. can control the fate of the Arctic or singlehandedly eliminate risks in the region.