MEPs on the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Environment Committee adopted a report on January 31 to protect the Arctic, especially from the use of heavy fuel oil in maritime transport. MEPs said the EU should speak with one voice and push to keep the Arctic an area of cooperation. They called for steps to be taken to avoid the militarisation of the region and for a strategy to promote sustainable development, environmental protection and to limit the impact of human activities.

The geopolitical importance of the Arctic region is growing, with climate change effects and competition for natural resources bringing new environmental and security risks for the region and for the world. Many European politicians are also concerned that US President Donald Trump, a climate skeptic, will boost the US oil and gas drilling and coal mining industries in environmentally sensitive areas by reducing regulation.

Art Nash, energy specialist in the School of Natural Resources and Extension, at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, told New Europe by phone on January 31 that the European Parliament’s vote addressed one of the big concerns, trying to ban heavy fuel because of the new transportation routes, which due to the thinning of the ice, “are going to create more accessibility to natural resources either when you go through the Bering Strait, either if you go to the left westwards towards Russia, or to the right towards Point Barrow and the Alaskan northern coast”.

Nash said there are concerns over possible contamination of sea ice and sea waters from ships that might be leaking oils. “It’s certainly as much an Alaskan concern as it is a Russian concern,” he said. Nash also added that the drilling would have an effect even if there weren’t oil spills.

He explained that the main focus would be methane hydrates because of the fact that if things are warming up it’s to the advantage of extracting methane hydrates not only to get the energy out of them but also to avoid their eventual exposure to the atmosphere.

Nash reminded that former US President Barack Obama was very concerned with climate change while Trump is coming from an opposite viewpoint as far as climate change. “(However), just because of the different changes from Republican to Democrat that have happened since the Clinton era and yet the policies and goals remained quite the same within the departments of the government, I suspect there will probably also be a lot of continuation of the same policies and goals,” Nash said.

Last week, Trump revived the Keystone XL pipeline, which will move oil from Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast. But Nash said offshore oil drilling is a whole different ballgame. “It would take more than a couple of years to really turn around. Certainly the Russians, from just the bit I have seen the last couple of years, have been a lot more aggressive and trying to go into the Arctic with nuclear ice breakers,” he said. “They’re very much so are looking to capitalise from the new accessibility for oil as much as transportation and are using nuclear to power to do it,” he added.

Regarding the European Parliament resolution on January 31, Foreign Affairs Committee rapporteur Urmas Paet said the Arctic has long been an area of constructive international cooperation and it has remained a low-tension cooperative regional order in the world. “We want to keep it that way. There is a need to avoid the militarisation of the Arctic. Also, the respect for international law in the Arctic is essential,” said.

The Parliament’s resolution stresses the growing geopolitical importance of the Arctic region, as climate change brings new navigation and fishing routes as well as a better access to its natural resources. MEPs point out the increased “Russian military forces in the region, the building and reopening of bases and creation of an Arctic military district of Russia”.

MEPs are in favour of the Arctic to remain a low-tension area and stress “the important role of the Arctic Council for maintaining constructive cooperation, low tension, peace and stability” in the region.

In the spring, the Arctic Council hands the gavel over to Finland. “Finland may start to gear things a different way because if their relationship with the EU and their understanding of climate change being different from the US,” Nash told New Europe. Taking over from the United States, Finland will hold a term of rotating presidency in the Artic Council from May 2017 through 2019.

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