The Arctic Council: Gatekeeper or Doormat to the World's Next Major Resource Battle?

Author:Oded Cedar
Position:J.D. candidate, May 2012, at American University Washington College of Law, specializing in Energy Law and Financial Regulation
by Oded Cedar*
It has long been said that “Those who cannot remember the
past are condemned to repeat it.”1 If history indeed repeats
itself, then all indicators suggest that the global community
is ripe for another major “land grab.”2 This time, the land at issue
is the Arctic3 and the bounty is the abundant oil and natural gas
reserves trapped beneath its surface.4
Over the last decade, a coalescence of different factors has
shifted the search for natural resources such as oil and gas to the
Arctic.5 Advances in exploration, drilling, and extraction tech-
nologies have helped mitigate the traditionally cost-prohibitive
factors of developing ice-locked reserves.6 Geopolitical concerns
about the waning global supply of oil and gas have also driven
countries to explore for these resources in the Arctic.7 However,
the primary force behind this focus is the undeniable fact that the
Earth’s changing climate is melting away the Arctic’s ice sheet
and permafrost, making the region’s oil and gas reserves acces-
sible for the first time.8
The Arctic Council (“AC” or “Council”) is a leading forum
for the dialogue on the development of natural resources in the
region.9 This intergovernmental body is comprised of eight
member-nations, all of which border the Arctic Circle.10 The
Council also includes six “permanent-observer” nations11 who,
though they have no voting rights, can participate and contrib-
ute to the work of the Council.12 The AC’s stated mission is to:
“promot[e] cooperation, coordination, and interaction among
the Arctic States . . . on common Arctic issues, in particular [on]
issues of sustainable development and environmental protection
in the Arctic.”13
The AC’s mission stems from the Ottawa Declaration, which
established the AC in 1996.14 This document avows the commit-
ment of AC member-nations to seek “sustainable development
in the Arctic region including conservation and sustainable use
of natural resources.”15 This language from the Ottawa Declara-
tion incorporates the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy
(“AEPS”) that was instrumental the Council’s creation.16 Thus,
the impetus behind the AEPS and the AC makes it reasonable to
expect as well as demand some action from the Arctic Council
to oversee and regulate the development of fossil fuels in the
Despite its benevolent mission and establishing documents,
the AC has in actuality provided a forum for member-nations
to lay the groundwork for unsustainable fossil fuel development
in the Arctic.18 Most recently, the Danish ambassador to China
noted his strong support for China’s inclusion into the AC as a
permanent-observer nation.19 This move garnered speculation
from scholars and analysts, who noted China’s aid to Denmark
in the development of Greenland’s natural resources, and China’s
interest in Arctic resources since 2004.20 Canada is an especially
vocal claimant, touting the country’s long-standing sovereignty
over certain areas in the Arctic, and further expressing the coun-
try’s intent to exercise its sovereignty in documents published
with the AC.21 Other actions by the AC member-nations outside
of the forum, like Russia’s placement of a national flag on the
Arctic’s ocean floor, presumably stir echoes through the AC.22
At one point or another, every member nation of the AC has
published reports with the council, expressing their plans to
exercise sovereignty over the region and to develop its fossil fuel
These national assertions make fossil fuel extraction in the
Arctic seemingly expected and inevitable.24 However, the AC
member-nations’ plans for fossil fuel extraction contradict their
commitment to protecting the Arctic environment expressed in
the Ottawa Declaration.25 In addition to worsening the effects
of climate change, unchecked oil and gas development can have
direct, catastrophic environmental consequences. For example,
the lack of oversight that allowed the BP oil spill to occur illus-
trates what could happen in the Arctic without proper regula-
tion by the AC.26 Furthermore, the AC has emerged as the key
platform for the indigenous tribes of the Arctic to voice their
concerns.27 Without a proper oversight mechanism, these indig-
enous tribes will lose a key forum for ensuring their negotiating
parity with the member-nations.28 Therefore, it is imperative for
the AC to develop environmentally conscious standards for fos-
sil fuel extraction to protect the Arctic environment under the
Ottawa Declaration. If the AC f ails to do so, then it risks becom-
ing an obsolete and ineffectual organization.
The AC should also create mechanisms that will enforce
the member-nations’ Ottawa commitments and environmental
regulations for oil and gas development in the Arctic. However,
since the AC is a “cooperative” group it currently has no bind-
ing enforcement authority.29 Therefore, the first step must be
the establishment of the AC’s binding powers, .30 Without the
essential ability to enforce its resolutions, the AC has no mecha-
nism through which it can ensure that its member-nations do
not act in contradiction with the AC’s core missions. However,
given their support for fossil fuel development in the Arctic,
it is unlikely that the AC member-nations will voluntary cre-
ate a new regulatory authority in the region. Thus action must
come from the international community, who —through the
“permanent-observer” nations—must apply pressure on the AC
*Oded Cedar is a J.D. candidate, May 2012, at American University Washington
College of Law, specializing in Energy Law and Financial Regulation.
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