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Arctic oil boom looms as Canada preps to take over as council chair

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt listens to a question during a news conference after a meeting in Sarajevo April 5, 2012.

DADO RUVIC/REUTERS

An oil boom is coming to the Arctic, but not just yet, says Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a key player in the international politics of the far north.

There's still time, he says, for the nations of the region to "catch up" on environmental safeguards.

Mr. Bildt, whose nation now chairs the eight-nation Arctic Council, is in Ottawa to discuss far-north policy with Canadian counterpart John Baird just as the Harper government opened an auction for large tracts of offshore oil rights in the Canadian Arctic.

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That raises new questions about the balance between resource development and the environment in a largely undeveloped region. But Mr. Bildt said while there's already oil-and-gas exploration and development in the Arctic, the big boom is more than a few years away.

"A number of these things are under way," Mr. Bildt said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "But they're going slower than the headlines in the newspapers."

"I think it is going to take much longer for this to happen than people understand. I mean, it is enormously resource-demanding and complex," he said. "It's going to take some time. That's good, because it means that our frameworks on co-operation will catch up."

Just how fast it will move is unclear: Canada takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council next year at a critical time of international interest in the Arctic's future, but the Harper government has yet to signal whether it really wants strong international environmental standards in the Arctic. The auction of new blocks of Arctic offshore rights coincides with Ottawa's move to speed up environmental reviews of major resource projects to promote development.

The Arctic Council was long viewed as a forum for almost casual co-ordination between the eight nations with territories in the Arctic, as well as groups representing indigenous people. But interest, and its clout, is growing rapidly, as the world eyes the potential resource riches and new shipping lanes expected to be opened as global warming melts Arctic ice.

Already, far-off countries like China, Japan, and South Korea have sought to become observers at the council to watch developments in the far north.

The council creates a permanent bureaucracy and has started sponsoring talks on Arctic treaties, with environmental standards high on the priorities of some members. But there's no way the council will stop oil development, Mr. Bildt said.

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"No, because that's going to be decided by the individual governments, by the individual states," he said. "But I think [the council's]going to have an impact on it, in the sense that we might be able to have an agreement on the standards, and co-operation on it, and all of those things."

It has already forged one treaty, on search-and-rescue co-operation, and now, led by the U.S., Russian, Norway, and Sweden, there are negotiations on a new agreement on preventing oil spills, co-operating on clean-ups, and sharing know-how. That indicates the expanding interest of Arctic nations, especially the ones that are most advanced in resource development, Mr. Bildt said.

"A number of years ago, I'm not quite certain the Russians would have been interested in such a thing. Now they are. Because they see the problem as well," he said. "So they have an active interest in getting all of the experience and knowledge and expertise that we have in the West."

It may be too much to expect the council to develop a whole new environmental architecture for the Arctic, he said, but he believes it will be able to expand the joint standards for development that is going to come.

"That's what we are talking about, absolutely. To share experience, to share standards, to share technology," he said. "I think everyone sees the need to tighten up and be more careful."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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