06/03/2015 05:18 EDT | Updated 06/04/2016 05:59 EDT

Managing the Arctic: Moving North Towards the Ice Edge

Oil and gas exploration-driven advancement towards the High North and the ice brink is disputed in Norway, as elsewhere. When examining factors such as oil prices and the northern harsh conditions, rapid industrial development in the Norwegian Barents Sea is not a given.


Industrialization of the Arctic is taking place as we speak -- gradually and systematically.

In recent years, there have been several significant discoveries of oil and gas in Norway's Arctic. Norway's area of the Barents Sea is ice-free, distinguishing it from other Arctic areas, including in Canada. The first exploration well in the Barents Sea was spudded in 1980, and in 1984, Statoil discovered the Snøhvit (Snow White) gas field. Snøhvit has estimated recoverable reserves of 193 billion cubic meters of natural gas, 113 million barrels of condensate, and 5.1 million tons of natural gas liquids. In 2000, the Goliat field was discovered -- the production platform was towed in place recently this year.

Goliat FPSO platform in Hammerfest (source: Eni Norge)

A new licence round in 2013 allocated 20 new exploration and development licenses. The 23rd licence round will take place in 2015, and will then include blocks in the previously disputed area with Russia. Thus far, only 109 exploration wells have been drilled in Norway's Arctic. The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate estimates that 8 billion barrels of undiscovered resources are located in this area.

Oil and gas exploration-driven advancement towards the High North and the ice brink is disputed in Norway, as elsewhere. On one side, Norway has to prepare for a less carbon-intensive economy and needs to develop more renewable energy. At the same time, Norwegian oil and gas provide a reliable and predictable source of energy for the consuming markets, not the least Europe. When examining factors such as oil prices and the northern harsh conditions, rapid industrial development in the Norwegian Barents Sea is not a given. Granted, fields developed today will not be producing for another 10 to 15 years.

Map of Arctic Resource Basin (source: U.S Geological survey)

A Predictable Legal Framework

The coastal states bordering the Arctic Ocean agree that the Law of the Sea provides the legal framework for all activities in the Arctic Ocean. In Norway's view, existing international law provides a predictable framework for addressing present and foreseeable challenges in the Arctic.

There are few unresolved issues of jurisdiction in the Arctic. The maritime delimitation treaty signed by Norway and Russia in 2010 is an example of the practical application of the principles contained in the existing legal framework. The treaty entered into force in 2011.

The establishment of the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles is dealt with by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which is based in New York. Norway was the first coastal state bordering the Arctic Ocean to fulfil the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in this respect, and has worked in close cooperation with all its neighbouring states in the Arctic on this issue.

In Norway's view, it is essential that shipping in the Arctic Ocean be subject to the highest safety and environmental standards. Norway has been a driving force behind the development of a mandatory Polar Code under the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The adoption of the Polar Code will be an important milestone. Once the Code has been adopted, the member states must work together to ensure its harmonised implementation. Furthermore, the Arctic Council has undertaken comprehensive environmental and scientific studies on shipping in the Arctic, oil and gas activities and prospects, and ocean management.

Integrated Ocean Management as a Framework for Sustainable Value Creation

Norway has developed integrated, ecosystem-based management plans for all Norwegian marine areas, which identify particularly valuable and vulnerable areas. Responsible science-based management of fish stocks is a key Norwegian objective. Regional cooperation is essential in this regard. The Joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission and the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission are particularly important. This cooperation is based on scientific input from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

Norway is following the possible impact of climate change on fish migration patterns closely. Cod, for example, have returned and are abundant in the Barents Sea, bringing new economic possibilities for the coastal population. Nevertheless, Norway does not expect commercial fisheries further north in the central Arctic Ocean in the immediate future.

A Region Characterized by Cooperation and Stability

The likelihood of increased activity in the Arctic Ocean means that coastal states will need to maintain a strong presence in order to exercise their jurisdiction, sovereign rights and authority in a credible, consistent and predictable manner. Norway has therefore given priority to increasing its operational capacity, security presence and visibility in the High North. The Government will continue to ensure a high level of operational capability in the north. Security policy in the High North, as elsewhere, needs to be based on a modern and comprehensive understanding of security, which takes into account territorial, ecological, economic, social and political considerations. It is in everyone's interests that the Arctic remains a peaceful and stable region.

The Debate Continues

While the precautionary principle is the rule, the debate on how fast, how far, and to what cost is ongoing -- in Norway and abroad. Challenges of a changing North are unlikely to fade by themselves, and common action is imperative.

This piece has previously appeared in Embassy News (June 3, 2015) as part of The North - policy briefing.


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