Old Rivalries Heat Up in the Arctic
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union competed intensely in the Arctic; military bases dotted the frozen landscape, secret nuclear testings occurred, and submarines patrolled the chilly waters under leagues of ice. With renewed tension between the two nations, along with the prospect of billions of barrels of oil and natural gas in the region, the Arctic has opened to competition once more. This time, Canada, Norway, and even China have gotten involved. As climate change alters the landscape, more issues arise and finding common ground in a dramatically dynamic place is a challenge global powers must address in the coming years.
Before President Barack Obama left office, he issued an official Arctic policy, including a call for more U.S. icebreakers, which are large ships designed to break up ice sheets for the ease of other vessels. Currently, the U.S. has two, while Russia has 40. This statement reflects the concerted effort by the Obama administration to increase American influence in the Arctic. Russia has long held a strong foothold in the North; after all, half of the territory and population of the region is Russian. The increased attention given in the last few years concerns both resources and environmental issues. Along with more icebreakers, President Obama also banned oil and gas development in the region indefinitely, putting environmental issues over big-oil money. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also announced a similar statement in December 2016, although the Canadian ban lasts for only five years. This represents a landmark decision in not only the history of the Arctic but also for energy policy in North America.
On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the exact opposite policies of the North American leaders, pushing for more exploration in the Arctic and the opening of multiple new pipelines connecting northern fields to Europe. Norway also continues to support pumping more Arctic oil than ever. As the ice melts, drilling proves cheaper and easier. Furthermore, the U.S. Energy and Information Administration estimates the area as having 13 percent of global oil reserves and 30 percent of natural gas reserves, so the prospect of hitting this jackpot seems too attractive to ignore. The staunch differences in interests between Arctic nations shows the difficulty in establishing a uniform Arctic policy and the lack of international cooperation regarding which to prioritize—the environment or fossil fuel development.
Along with conflicting activities regarding resource development, the Arctic has witnessed an increased securitization. Reports of military hardware testing and even a secret nuclear testing emerged in February 2017. The U.S. and Canada have had ongoing tensions regarding the now-open Northwest Passage, a route that shortens the distance from Asia to Europe by 4,000 miles. Canada claims control over the passage and demands that all ships traveling through request permission from the government; however, the U.S. calls for freedom of travel through the frigid waters. China, holding observer status on the Arctic Council, an international forum of Arctic nations to discuss and resolve issues in the area, has invested billions in iron-ore projects in Greenland. China also cites complaints with both Canada’s Northwest Passage claims and Russian claims on a Northeast Passage, which shortens the distance from Arctic regions to China. Though this route opens only during the summer months, with more ice melting it could permanently open like the Canadian route.
As more ships, people, and resources flow in and out of the region, the effects of climate change will increase as well. Ice continues to melt, opening previously closed opportunities. The Arctic game is tricky: the region has such a fragile ecosystem but contains many promising resources. With a new administration in the U.S., the ban on oil and gas development could be revoked soon, and competition between Arctic nations may grow. The region may stay a pristine tundra, become an open faucet for fossil fuels, or become a hotly-contested military zone within the next few years.