Canada will use its position as chair of the international Arctic Council to push for new safety standards for oil tankers and other northern shipping – a move welcomed by Denmark after one of its ships became the first fully loaded cargo vessel to navigate the Northwest Passage.
A previous Canadian pledge to focus on "safe arctic shipping" cited cruise liners, rather than oil tankers. As Arctic Council meetings began on Monday in Whitehorse, Environment Minister and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq suggested oil tankers could become a more common sight in Northern waters.
"An oil spill from one of the many ships that will soon be crossing Arctic waterways as the shipping season becomes longer could have serious consequences for the environment and the livelihoods of northern people," Ms. Aglukkaq said in one of three speeches in Whitehorse on Monday, according to remarks released by her office, as Canada opened its time as Arctic Council chair with a three-day summit.
In a speech to the council, Ms. Aglukkaq said unspecified work "on oil pollution prevention in Arctic waters is an important opportunity for the council to show Arctic leadership" and that preventing oil spills is "critical to protecting the Arctic marine environment."
Denmark's senior arctic official, Erik Vilstrup Lorenzen, welcomed Canada's focus on shipping. A Danish-owned freighter, the Nordic Orion, carried coal through the Northwest Passage this fall. Dwindling ice could spur more traffic – freighter or tanker – through Canada's North.
"Arctic shipping is a big thing. We have 10 per cent of the world's cargo shipping – small little Denmark," Mr. Vilstrup Lorenzen said. "It's huge." However, he does not expect the council to discuss limiting traffic, but rather how to regulate it, and whether the issue is best tackled by the International Maritime Organization, which is already working toward a binding code for polar shipping standards.
These subject matters will raise issues of sovereignty. Canada and the United States disagree over the legal status of the Northwest Passage.
"Canada's not going to be able to do an end run around the United States by approaching it through the Arctic Council rather than the IMO," said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law. He added that Canada is seen to have a poor environmental record, and hopes are low among some researchers for its two-year term as Arctic Council chair. "So if the minister is signaling these issues are priority issues for Canada, that gives me hope she will continue to push on these files," he said.
Ms. Aglukkaq, who is also the Canadian minister for the Arctic Council, said Canada's broad focus as chair nation is on issues that would improve the lives of northerners. This includes resource development, shipping and sustainable communities. The Danish official also applauded Ms. Aglukkaq on Monday for attending the meetings, which are usually conducted by senior civil servants. "It just shows the importance Canada attaches to the meeting," he said.
He said major issues – the reasons for climate change in the North, for example – will take a back seat to more tangible initiatives. "Here we would address what are the challenges because of climate change, not the causes. That's where we have the disagreement. But that's simply not part of this," said Mr. Vilstrup Lorenzen, a former ambassador to Canada. It is more important to address "climate issues, infrastructure, health, things like that," he said.
Canada will also launch a circumpolar business forum next year, and Sweden – the previous chair – believes Canada will continue such efforts. "You have common [issues] between Canada and Sweden that stick out," representative Gustaf Lind said, adding that it is crucial to focus on "the human dimension, and also to speak with businesses, because they are the ones that will develop the Arctic."
Canada founded the Arctic Council in 1996, and its current chairmanship comes as the mandate of the organization evolves from research to tackling emerging Arctic issues, Mr. Vilstrup Lorenzen said. "The whole world wants to be an observer. So it's becoming the organization we think it most important to address the important issues," he said.