arctic, arctic drilling, greenland sovereignty, indigenous peoples in the arctic

Global Warming Creates Power Struggle in Arctic

July 20, 2009 05:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Indigenous peoples in the Arctic are declaring sovereignty over valuable natural resources. But wealthier nations in the region are also staking claims on the oil- and gas-rich Arctic territory.

The Race for Revenue

In April, Arctic Inuit groups represented by the Inuit Circumpolar Council "declared 'sovereignty' over the Arctic's natural resources" in an effort to push back development efforts made by outsiders, according to The Economist. Now, government officials in Greenland are working with major oil companies like ExxonMobil to begin exploratory drilling efforts. The situation illustrates a growing sense of independence among indigenous communities in the Arctic.

But the United States and Canada, as well as "[a]lmost all the sovereign powers in the region" are using the United Nations Law of the Sea to assert economic access to Arctic waters "that are a physical extension of their own territory." According to The Economist, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic could contain up to "90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic metres of gas," resources that could "offer local people the most plausible route to economic independence."

Russia and Norway are also "staking claims to Arctic territory," the BBC reports, and Russia and Canada have separately said they will establish military presences in Greenland to ensure protection of their economic interests.

This intensified bid for Arctic territory is due in part to warmer temperatures. The Economist explains that climate change has thinned Arctic sea ice, which eases oil and gas drilling efforts and draws iceberg-viewing tourists. Melting ice has also lengthened the fishing season in the Arctic, and some fishermen have reported bigger catches.

Background: Greenland's autonomy and the Ilulissat Declaration

Over the past year, Greenland has been taking steps to increase its autonomy from Denmark, and to establish cooperative agreements with outside nations wanting a piece of the Arctic's economic pie.

In May 2008, Denmark called a meeting of five countries to discuss ownership of the Arctic region. Russia, the U.S., Canada and Norway attended the conference in Ilulissat, Greenland, 250 km north of the Arctic Circle.

The result was adoption of the Ilulissat Declaration, which emphasizes cooperation between outside nations and Arctic communities when faced with "future challenges" in the Arctic, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. A link to a PDF version of the Declaration is available.

Last November, Greenland voted to expand its autonomy from Denmark, The New York Times reported. In addition to giving Greenland control over local law enforcement and national language, the vote set standards for "how to split future oil revenue between Greenland and Denmark." Under the new rules, Greenland will get "the first 75 million kroner of oil revenue," with any additional revenue to be equally shared with Denmark.

Opinion & Analysis: Views of conservationists and environmental organizations

The Arctic Economics blog outlines opposition to the Ilulissat Declaration from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the European Environment Agency.

In a January 2007 report issued by the WWF, called "A New Sea: The Need for a Regional Agreement on Management and Conservation of the Arctic Marine Environment," authors Dr. Rob Huebert and Brooks Yeager described their suggestions for managing the Arctic Sea. "To be effective, a strengthened management framework for the Arctic must be comprehensive and ecosystem-based," they wrote.

Jacqueline McGlade, the European Environment Agency's executive director, suggested at a January 2007 conference on Europe's role in the Arctic that "multilateral environmental agreements" would be necessary for Artic states to "be able to withstand the pressure from within as well as from outside the region to exploit the resources."

Related Topic: Global warming has implications for security

The rapid melting of the Arctic could prompt armed conflicts as the region's abundance of natural resources and new shipping routes become more accessible. Foreign Affairs Magazine recommends that the U.S. lead the way in finding diplomatic solutions to the conflicts that may arise as nations scramble for the area's resources.

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