While the thought of official councils — with their high-level policy workshops and multilateral task forces — is enough to send most sensible people into fits of abysmal loathing, there is one such council that anyone passionate about the high north should care about: the Arctic Council.

Photo: Shell's damaged Kulluk drill barge on January 8, 2013 in Kiliuda Bay in Alaska

Laudable aims

Created by the Ottawa Declaration in 1996, the Arctic Council is “a high level intergovernmental forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States.” Of particular importance to the Council are “issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.”

These are fine, noble words and laudable aims. But, as my dear grandmother often reminded me, such words tend not to butter many parsnips.

Not much to show for though

And so it is with the Arctic Council. Despite being set up to help safeguard the unique, fragile environment of the frozen north, and oft stressing the vulnerability of the region to ecological degradation and the looming threat of climate change, the Council hasn’t been particularly active in creating binding laws to achieve this. In fact, since its inception back in the mid-90s, the Council has only ever produced one legally-binding agreement, the catchily named Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) agreement signed in Nuuk, Greenland, in 2011.

Overall, the Arctic Council has failed to provide the sort of regulation and leadership needed in the face of complex threats like rapid environmental change and the encroachment of a greedy oil and gas industry. Indeed, after nearly two decades of environmental roundtables, expert meetings and ministerials, the Council has almost nothing to show for it.

Oil spill response agreement

This is why groups like Greenpeace pinned such high hopes on the Council’s plan to create an international agreement on responding to an increasingly significant environmental threat: an oil spill in the Arctic. The council set up a task force to draft an Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, ultimately aiming to agree a “legally binding intergovernmental agreement” that would ensure an effective response to a drilling accident in the offshore Arctic.

Sadly, and true to form, the Arctic Council has fluffed its lines.

The leaked draft

Greenpeace recently got hold of a leaked draft (download the PDF) of the oil spill response agreement and we were pretty shocked by what it contained. Or, more accurately, what it didn’t contain.

Amazingly, given the obvious risks of drilling for oil in the polar regions, and the enormous challenges any accident response would face in night-shrouded and ice-choked waters, it completely fails to outline any essential response equipment, methods for capping wells, or cleaning up oiled habitats and wildlife.

If the agreement was as heavy on outlining what steps countries should to take to cap a gushing well as it is on meaningless verbiage, the Arctic fox that serves as the Council’s logo could rest a little easier. As it is, it has every reason to be worried. When faced by the risk of a Deepwater Horizon-style accident under ice, vague statements that Arctic nations should “ensure” they try and take “appropriate steps within available resources” to respond to a spill simply aren’t good enough.

It hardly inspires confidence in the ability of the Arctic Council to protect this fragile region when the worst happens.

Oil industry influence

And as if that wasn’t enough, serious questions need to be asked about the role that oil companies played in creating the agreement. Photos issued on the Arctic Council’s Flickr photostream show oil industry representatives participating in the working group, including the final meeting in which the document was finalised. Quite why you’d want companies like Shell, responsible as they were for the most recklessly inept drilling programme imaginable off Alaska this summer, telling you how to organise a clean-up is anyone’s guess.

No oil company has ever proven it can clean up an oil spill in ice and this agreement offers nothing to change that. The document is a bit like the UN Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty simply saying, ‘please have a national plan to not detonate atom bombs’.

Eyes on the Arctic

This week, the Arctic Council’s environment ministers are meeting in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. The agreement isn’t currently on the agenda, but we’re hoping to change that. With any luck, leaking this document will encourage sanity to prevail, and give the working group an opportunity to revise the document before it's adopted by foreign ministers in May.

We hope civil servants realise what a useless document it currently is. At the moment it only shows one thing: no nation or company is adequately prepared to deal with an oil spill in the far north.

So the question remains: will the Arctic Council do its job and actually protect this unique region from the likes of Shell and Gazprom? We’ll be watching very closely.

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