The Arctic Council is an international forum for discussion and debate on important Arctic issues. Where it’s sometimes less successful is in reaching agreement.
But it now has one more binding agreement to its name. The Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic—the Council’s second ever binding agreement—was signed by all eight Arctic ministers this morning.
In the event of an oil spill anywhere in the ecologically sensitive Arctic region, this new agreement is the tool the circumpolar countries are hoping will help them work together to clean it up. It sets out guidelines for things like communicating between countries, coordinating personnel and figuring out who needs to do what.
Although the product of a Arctic Council task force, the agreement was negotiated by and agreed to by all eight countries.
It also means that the Arctic countries are required to notify each other should there be an oil spill—from any source—anywhere in the Arctic.
In a presentation after the Arctic Council ministerial meeting, Ambassador David Balton, an American marine conservation expert and the co-chair of the task force, said “the prospect of a potential oil spill event in the Arctic is very much on peoples minds.”
There’s no question that a changing Arctic means melting polar ice and a lot more open ocean. Which means, “we are anticipating—despite what some protesters may say—that there will be increased oil and gas development,” Balton said.
More oil and gas development means more tankers in Arctic waters, which means the possibility of an oil spill in the Arctic has moved beyond the hypothetical.
Although this is not the first agreement to attempt to sort out what happens when oil spills in international waters, Balton said it’s the first “pan-Arctic agreement” that combines duties and obligations for all the Arctic countries.
In other words, each country is committing itself to equip itself to respond to oil spills, meaning they will need things like equipment and plans for how they will respond.
Even if they don’t currently have these things.
Speaking for the United States, Balton said, “we are not fully ready to do what is necessary.” He adds, referring to the other Arctic countries, “I suspect we’re not alone in this.”
But the intent of the agreement is to spur countries to get serious about oil spills.
“We are hoping that the signing of this agreement will be the prompt to be ready.”
The agreement has been signed, now it’s up to each country to verify it internally, a process Balton is confident will happen within the year.
“It’s a compelling issue of our time,” he says, “we need to do a better job of being ready for any potential oil spill events in the Arctic.”