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Oil, Industry and Arctic Sustainability

Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

I arrived at the university campus for Arctic Frontiers Tuesday morning to find a row of young people waiting to welcome the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg with a banner protesting against fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic.

Ingrid Skjoldvear, the deputy leader of Norway’s biggest youth environment organization told me they want the prime minister to stop Arctic drilling in Norwegian seas and be serious about cutting emissions and taking their climate goals seriously. She knows it brings in a lot of revenue, but says we need to start a transition now for a future with renewables. WWF’s Nina Jansen told me she thinks there is a growing awareness in Norway of the link between fossil fuel emissions and the climate change that is affecting the Arctic so dramatically.

Balancing economic, environmental and self-determination needs

Aleqa Hammond, prime minister of Greenland, identified the dilemma: How to bring Greenland the prosperity it needs using easier access to oil, gas and minerals, made more accessible through climate change, without destroying a society rapidly being catapulted from a traditional nature-based rural lifestyle into the realities of the industrialized, commercialized, globalized world where the environment has at best secondary priority?

She talked a lot about the special relation with Denmark, the former colonial power. For her it is clear that Greenlanders have the right to complete self-determination – without losing that close relationship.

There was just one thing that I did not find adequately addressed in Hammond’s presentation. She made a clear case for the need for environment protection. We need to do more on maritime safety, oil spill preparedness, cost-effective surveillance solutions to detect oil spills, search and rescue. But when she proudly refers to her government’s controversial decision to abandon the country’s zero-tolerance policy of mining uranium and other minerals with radioactive content, I find it hard to see how this fits.

Another clear message was that outsiders should not interfere. While Hammond said she approved of the decision to have non-Arctic speakers at Arctic Frontiers (and at a time when the secretariat of the Arctic Council here in Tromso is holding a high-level closed doors meeting discussing the role of the many observers to the body), she said “It is clear for me that development in the Arctic should be given by the needs and inspirations of the people of the Arctic. Anything else would be wrong.” At the same time she appealed to any new partners in the Arctic to bear in mind that even small changes will have a big effect on a small indigenous population. Perhaps this reflects the realistic knowledge that developing the Arctic will not be possible without the economic power and the expertise of outsiders. Fine food for thought on this final day of the political part of a conference on “Humans in the Arctic”.

Increased Arctic shipping spurs debate

Monday was Day One of the conference's two-day political segment. The main message seems to be that Arctic development is going full speed ahead. The Arctic Council (currently chaired by Canada) and Arctic states will have their hands full in the years to come, coordinating that development and trying to make it sustainable and of benefit to the people of the High North. “Humans in the Arctic” is a very apt theme..

Monday's debate was conducted mainly between Jensen of the WWF and Felix Tschudi, chairman of Tschudi Group shipping company, who was putting the industry point of view. Needless to say the two had differing opinions before, during and at the end of the debate. It would be surprising otherwise. It was mentioned during the day that the Polar Code negotiations might be successfully concluded in London this week. That, says Jensen, would be an important first step. But it would not solve all the problems.

This is a debate which will continue, I have no doubt, well after the end of Arctic Frontiers. How compatible are economic development, environmental protection and the health and traditional cultures of indigenous groups in the Arctic?

Irene Quaile works as a journalist for Deutsche Welle, Germany's international broadcaster. This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.