By Caitlin Del Sole, Editorial Assistant at European Affairs

It’s cold now, but the north will warm as summer approaches,  and so will  interest and tension in the Arctic region.  Again, large areas of the polar ice will melt making the Arctic Ocean  much more navigable and exploitable.   The expanding waterways provide an opportunity for new, more direct and less dangerous shipping routes to be developed during the summer months.  As roughly 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil is located in the Arctic, it is an increasingly attractive target of investment and energy. With this new opportunity, however,  comes new challenges of safety, environmental protection and conflicting interests.  For example, the Financial Times reports recently that companies, like ConocoPhillips, have been pressuring Norway to open up more Arctic water for exploration.

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On November 29, 2012, The European Institute hosted a seminar following the Arctic Council’s formal Senior Arctic Official meeting in Sweden. This seminar brought together representatives of the Arctic Council’s member states and focused on the evolution of the Arctic’s governance and the prospects for ensuring sustainable economic development in this fragile and resource rich region. Panelists included: Berit Enge, Minister Counselor, Political Affairs, Royal Norwegian Embassy; Dr. John Farrell, Executive Director, U.S. Arctic Research Commission; Julia Gourley, U.S. Senior Arctic Official, U.S. Department of State; Ambassador Hannu Halinen, Ambassador, Arctic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland; Fred Larsen, CEO, Lamor; Ida Heimann Larsen, Minister Counselor, Economic, Royal Danish Embassy; Eva Hunnius Ohlin, Environmental Technology Officer, Embassy of Sweden; Sheila Riordon, Minister, Political Affairs, Embassy of Canada and former Canadian Senior Arctic Official; Brian Robinson, U.S. Coast Guard Liaison, Office of Oceans & Polar Affairs, U.S. Department of State; His Excellency Gudmundur Arni Stefansson, Ambassador of Iceland to the United States; and Ambassador Anton Vasiliev, Senior Arctic Official of the Russian Federation. James Graff, Executive Editor of The Week moderated the discussion.

Click here to read Ambassador Vasiliev's remarks.

On September 18th, The European Institute hosted a breakfast discussion with Rolf Einar Fife, Director General of the Department of Legal Affairs at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  As the chief Norwegian negotiator of the breakthrough 2010 agreement with Russia on maritime boundaries in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean, Mr. Fife explained the process of negotiating agreements for resolving competing claims on Arctic resources and stressed the importance of the International Law of the Sea treaty as a “rule book” for governing the Arctic.

Amid ongoing international discussions about the Arctic sea as it unfreezes more of the year and opens for traffic, Russian maritime companies are starting to use its widening channels as a sea route that can shorten the distance between Europe and Asia during longer and longer parts of the summer as the polar ice pack recedes. Running along Russia’s shore, this expanding new “Northern Sea Route” is the sea-going version of the “over the pole” flights that have become routine for aircraft. [Here is a New York Times map of the NSR through the Eastern Arctic]

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At the Nuuk meeting, the Arctic Council put off the European Commission’s application for “permanent observer” status – probably for two years. The bid was strongly supported by one Arctic Council member state, Finland (which also belongs to the EU). But it was opposed by two other permanent Council members, Canada and Russia. Decisions are taken by unanimity on the Council. A decision on the EU application – based on criteria established at Nuuk – is set to be taken within two years, ie by the time of the next Council ministerial.

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