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This image provided by Greenpeace Sunday May 29, 2011 shows the 53,000 tonne Leiv Eiriksson oil rig which activists scaled.

Steve Morgan/AP

Given the untapped energy potential in the Arctic, an increase in offshore exploration and production is inevitable. It is also in many respects welcome, benefiting the region's economy. However, it is crucial that it occur in a way that is sensitive to an extremely fragile ecosystem. Canada, as incoming chair of the Arctic Council, can help ensure that necessary safeguards are in place.

Anxieties over the ability to access oil in the region were stoked by recent events, including Shell's decision last fall to postpone its $4.5-billion effort to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska following problems with sea ice, accidents on its two Arctic drilling rigs, and a malfunction of its environmental-protection equipment. That was in the summer. Imagine what could go wrong in winter, with ice floes and fierce and unpredictable winds.

Meanwhile, Total SA, the French oil producer, recently halted work in the Arctic. Christophe de Margerie, Total's chief executive, said the risk of an oil spill was too great for the environmentally sensitive area. "Oil on Greenland would be a disaster," he told the Financial Times, expressing concern a leak would damage the company's reputation.

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The Arctic Council has a unique opportunity to establish best practices and manage the complex risks of drilling in the North. It should consider putting more teeth in its draft agreement on oil-spill preparedness and response, which members are expected to sign in May. The agreement has some laudable provisions. It endorses the general principle of "polluter pays," sets out the obligation to protect the marine environment and to promote conservation, and the need for each country to have a 24-hour monitoring and response system to reports of oil spills.

But Canada, as incoming council chair, should use its leadership to press for better oil-spill technology given the unique conditions in an area that still sees lots of ice, as well as the legal obligations of polluters.

This last point is particularly important. The council's mandate, after all, includes protection of the environment. There should be explicit wording to make sure that oil companies are responsible for the cost of cleaning up spills – and that they have the equipment, experience and technology to address this challenge.

The Arctic contains as much as a quarter of the world's untapped oil reserves. Development will bring benefits to the people who live there, and help them achieve economic self-sufficiency. However, due regard must be given to conservation of the Arctic environment, to its unique marine life, and to the need to adequately prepare for the complexities of drilling under the ice. Even a minor oil spill could have major environmental consequences.

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