Arctic shipping policy: What's wrong with this picture

Arctic shipping policy: What’s wrong with this picture

Arctic shipping policy: What’s wrong with this picture

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Often we hear much talk about balancing economic and environmental concerns, and this idea — which has widespread support — is referred to as sustainable development. One of the places on earth where there has been substantial discussion of sustainable development is the Arctic. This is because the region contains abundant natural resources, such as oil, gas and minerals, that companies and governments are seeking to exploit. The region, as well, is seeing increasing amounts of shipping, primarily destination-oriented and focused on resource development but also consisting of some transit traffic. Unfortunately, the zeal for economic development has not been matched by a thorough, resolute commitment to environmental protection, especially when it comes to shipping. Of course, one may contend that the recently adopted Polar Code at the International Maritime Organization provides a firewall of environmental protection against shipping’s impacts; however, that opinion is not supported by the Code’s actual text — expected to enter into force January 1, 2017 — which does little to deal with the most urgent and far-reaching problems we face from Arctic shipping. Namely, the Code fails to address arguably the three most important issues concerning shipping in the region: the use of heavy fuel oil, harmful air emissions and invasive species risk. While there have been improvements regarding operational requirements in the Code, such as to discharges of bilge water and sewage, for example, the biggest environmental concerns have been given short shrift.

Why did this happen? Well, for one thing, it wasn’t for a lack of trying by environmental groups, of which there are a handful with observer status at the IMO, who submitted four documents on the issue of heavy fuel oil alone. The problem lies in a very one-sided or misguided conception about sustainable development in relation to shipping in the Arctic. Essentially, industry and many states want to operate in the Arctic — one of the most fragile and unique ecosystems on the planet — as if it were any old stretch of sea and maintain practices that are outdated and irresponsible. And, when this mentality is challenged, the retort is often that modern environmental regulations and norms would invariably curtail Arctic shipping. This is false — shipping in the Arctic, bounded by contemporary standards and informed by science, can most certainly occur. One ought to ask: Has shipping lessened where air emission standards are more stringent than in other areas, such as the North Sea or off the Eastern Seaboard of North America? The answer: No, it hasn’t. Hence, the business-as-usual practices and attendant rhetoric of the industry should no longer be tolerated, particularly as it concerns the most environmentally sensitive marine locales in the world.

Unfortunately, the shipping industry still behaves as if it were in the 1960s or 1970s, and the sad fact is that many countries both domestically and within international venues, such as the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization, coddle it. It’s time for states, particularly Arctic states such as the United States, to start focusing on the first word of sustainable development, not just the second, as it pertains to Arctic shipping. It only takes one big spill to change everything — remember Exxon Valdez. Incredibly, environmental policy surrounding Arctic shipping has become the equivalent of “fingers crossed,” when it comes to grave threats such as heavy fuel oil spills, climate-warming emissions and invasive species. These heedless notions need to change before long — too much is at stake.

Photo credit: Thomas Hallerman, Marine Photobank

Edited on 3/1/2016 at 12:00 pm: This post has been edited to align with AP Stylebook standards. The Exxon Valdez hyperlink was also added for additional context.

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