Agreement on Arctic Oil Spill Close to Completion

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Agreement on Arctic Oil Spill Close to Completion

Representatives from the Arctic states are winding up the fifth round of negotiations on a legally binding agreement on preparedness and response in the event of a marine oil spill in the Arctic in Reykjavík today.

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Greenland. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

The agreement is seen as necessary in light of recent increased activity in the shipping and oil industries in the region. Counselor for Arctic Affairs at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Jónas Gunnar Allansson, says the agreement is particularly important for Iceland due to its reliance on the purity of its surrounding waters and coastline.

The three-day meeting of the Arctic Council Task Force on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response, which ends today, was chaired by Co-Chair Ambassador Anton Vasiliev (Russia) with the assistance of two Co-Chairs, Karsten Klepsvik (Norway) and Ambassador David Balton (U.S.).

Vasiliev said the negotiations had gone well and that the text of the agreement would be completed in Reykjavík today. “From the very beginning to this very round we have worked in an atmosphere of friendliness, cooperation and common interest in our endeavor and this is very important, ” he said, praising what he described as excellent conditions for the negotiations in Reykjavík.

However, Vasiliev pointed out that some sections of the agreement, including technical work on some appendices, will still need to be completed in the coming months. “But we all hope that both the prepared text and the work that needs to be done will be finished in due time and the agreement will be signed at the next Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council on the 15th of May, 2013,” he said.

According to Vasiliev, the challenge of responding to oil spills in the Arctic includes both the physical behavior of oil in cold, icy water, as well as recent activity in the Arctic, which presents new issues for the region.

“There are many challenges in responding to oil spills. The Arctic Council has done a very good job of analyzing the peculiarities of behavior of oil in these harsh, Nordic conditions and have concluded that fighting oil spills in the Arctic will be a technically more difficult task than fighting oil spills elsewhere,” he explained.

“It’s a new issue because before the hydrocarbons riches of the Arctic were protected by ice, by harsh climate and were inaccessible. Changes which are undergoing in the North, climatic changes, technological changes and even political changes—the end of the Cold War—all make these hydrocarbon resources more and more accessible,” he added.

Vasiliev and Balton said that the aim of the agreement was to minimize the risks of resource extraction in the North. “One of the major interests of humankind [in the Arctic] is to get the resources. While getting the resources, we understand very well that we are also bearing risks and recent catastrophes in the Mexican Gulf etc. were a very grim reminder of the dangers that await those who want to extract hydrocarbons in the Arctic,” Vasiliev stated.

Balton explained that, according to the deal, should a spill take place, the country in whose waters the spill takes place would request assistance from other signatories to the agreement. Those countries who are in a position to help would then do what they could to assist. Joint training and other activities are also part of the agreement.

Klepsvik emphasized that the benefit of the agreement was the sharing of expertise and resources on the issue. “This system is made so we can do this very fast because all the procedures will already be in place in advance. We will know exactly who we need to contact, we will have cleared the customs clearance etc., so everyone knows who they can contact 24 hours a day, year-round to ask for help immediately,” he said.

According to Balton, the legally-binding nature of the agreement provides a greater level of confidence that the cooperation will be forth-coming. However, Balton said that the eight countries work well together and is confident that they will implement the agreement faithfully.

Klepsvik added that the agreement sends a strong signal to the rest of the world that the Arctic countries are prepared to take the responsibilities that follow the increased activities in the Arctic including oil and gas activities.

The Task Force to prepare the international instrument on oil pollution preparedness and response was mandated at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Nuuk in May 2011.

The meeting was attended by representatives of eight Arctic Council member states, which consist of Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, plus members of some permanent participants consisting of representatives of Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, as well as invited experts.

The next meeting will be held in Kiruna, Sweden on May 15, 2013.

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Zoë Robert/Iceland Review