The decision to allow Shell to begin drilling in the Chuckchi Sea should not really surprise anyone. The decisions among all five Arctic states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States) that have oil reserves in their arctic waters has never been about if the oil should be developed, but when. Furthermore, all five of these states jealously guard their sovereign right to develop these resources and are not interested in sharing control.
Even in the face of Western economic sanctions and lower world prices, Russia began production of its Arctic offshore oil in the Pechora Sea in December 2013. Norway has been actively looking north for new sources to supplement its decreasing supply of North Sea oil. Greenland and Denmark have used force to dislodge protesters who attempted to stop the search for oil in Greenland’s waters. Canada will soon authorize companies to join the search for oil in its Arctic waters. So no one should be under the illusion that there is ever a possibility that these resources will not be developed regardless of the complexity and challenges of operating in the Arctic.
Likewise no one should believe that it is possible to develop a robust international regime that will have the power to regulate national decisions to exploit these resources. All current arctic oil development takes place in regions that are under the sovereign control of the coastal state and none will share this right with others. Equally concerning is the chilling effect that the deteriorating geopolitical reality that is now shaping circumpolar relations. Through the Arctic Council, the Arctic states had created an international search and rescue treaty in anticipation of increased economic activities in the region. One of its most important elements called for all Arctic states to practice together. Since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis, there has been no exercises in which all have participated.
Ultimately, this means that the best hope for Arctic oil development that minimizes the risk to the environment will come from the individual decisions, regulations and policies that each Arctic state imposes (or does not impose) on the oil companies. The exploitation of arctic oil resources has already begun and will only expand – but on an entirely national basis. Let's hope that the individual governments of the Arctic five are up to the challenges to properly manage how it is done.
Rob Huebert is a consultant of the Polar and Ocean Portal. He is an associate professor in the department of political science and at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.