EU announces Arctic policy, but what does it mean?

4 Jul 2012 anna

Photo: Per Johan Brandvik/SINTEF
Dogs are trained by a joint oil industry programme to sniff out oil under ice. Photo: Per Johan Brandvik/SINTEF
Yesterday (3rd July) the European Commission published a document outlining its policy position on the Arctic region. Alarmingly, one of the action priorities listed in the press release is "Promotion and development of environmentally friendly technologies that could be used by extractive industries in the Arctic". In the Communication full text (p9) they add:

In view of increasing mining and oil extraction activities in the Arctic region, the EU will work with Arctic partners and the private sector to develop environmentally friendly, low-risk technologies that could be used by extractive industries.

Does this mean EU funding for oil-sniffer dogs? or for ongoing extraction projects?

A previous Communication on the Arctic was published by the Commission in 2008. Back then, the controversial priority was phrased as "Promoting sustainable use of resources". The stated purpose of documents like these is to lay the ground for further policy-making involving the EU's two other key structures – the Council and the Parliament, as well as for developing relations with the Arctic nations. In 2011 an EU Parliament enquiry responded with a report that put the priorities more bluntly: "The potential of developing resources like hydrocarbons, minerals, fish and biogenetic resources." So yesterday's Communication is another step in this complicated, contradictory policy back-and-forth. In Section 5 of our 2011 report 'Arctic Anxiety' you can read some more detail on this history.

In the same report, we advocated for the use of the precautionary principle in Arctic oil development. That is, where an industrial project poses severe risk to people or the environment, states should make sure to be prepared for the worst no matter how uncertain the risk is, or not authorise such industrial activity. In the case of the Arctic region, the devastating consequences a large scale oil spill would have are well documented, but the likelihood of such a spill is unknown and the ability of currently existing technology to deal with one is under question (that's an understatement). Interestingly, the 2012 Communication states that the EU "continues to advocate a precautionary approach" in relation to fisheries – but not to oil and gas.

Finally, the 2012 Communication ends its discussion of extractive industry with the following:

A proposal for a Regulation on the safety of offshore oil and gas prospection, exploration and production activities was presented by the Commission on 27 October 2011.

But this Regulation would only apply to EU waters – none of which are technically within the Arctic region – except if it requires EU companies to conform to the same safety standards outside as within the EU. (This is known as the extraterritoriality principle.) But is this what the Communication actually means? And, the million dollar question, will the Commission manage to pass a regulation that restricts the operation of EU-based companies (including oil giants BP, Shell, Total, ENI) to EU safety standards elsewhere?

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