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The week ahead – August 24-30

The American agenda – Seizing maritime opportunity – The proof is in the production
Alaska, a state so big it spills over into next week (Photo: Jan Reurink)

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iAbout Press releases

As part of our continuing efforts to bring you as much information about our region as possible we offer readers a press release service that allows private firms, public agencies, non-governmental organisations and other groups to submit relevant press releases on our website.

All press releases in this section are published in their full length and have not been edited.

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All material submitted to The Arctic Journal, including pictures and videos, will be assumed to be available for publication by The Arctic Journal and its related entities.

Each Monday, we give a brief run-down of some of the events and issues affecting the Arctic we’ll be paying attention to in the coming week. If you have an event you think should be included next week, please contact us.

The American agenda
Although not officially until next Monday, GLACIER, a conference that is shaping up to be America’s highest-profile Arctic meeting ever, will likely dominate this week’s discussions about the region.

That is perhaps due less to the one-day event’s agenda (which includes topics such as emergency response, housing and fisheries), as it is to the fact that Barack Obama is expected to address the gathering of foreign ministers, indigenous leaders, scientists and the like.

SEE VIDEO: President Obama dicusses plans to visit Alaska (at end of article)

GLACIER (a backronym for Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience) is being staged by America’s State Department. Washington holds the Arctic Council chairmanship, but the official notification about the event makes it clear that it is not a council event. Nor, the release states, is it directly related to the UN climate meeting in Paris in December.

Both, however, will figure prominently, and it is likely Mr Obama will draw on the effect global warming is on the Arctic to paint a larger picture of the troubles the planet is facing.

In connection with his participation in the conference, Mr Obama is expected to travel to other parts of the state, potentially making him the first sitting president to visit the Arctic.

The president himself has said he expects his trip to introduce him to “Americans who are dealing with climate change every day”, and to “talk with other nations about how we can tackle this challenge together”.

Critics will tell him he could start by not letting Shell conduct its exploration programme in the Chukchi Sea.

The size of the debate over oil and climate will likely leave the president with time to address little else. That may come as let-down to those hoping for a more detailed explanation of America’s policy towards the region, but at least they can take solace in the fact that America indeed seems to be taking its Arctic Council leadership seriously, even if progress sometimes seems to be occurring at a glacial pace.

In connection with the GLACIER event, The Arctic Journal will this week be focusing on Alaska and America in the Arctic. Columnist Martin Breum will preview the conference later in the week and will send back a report from Anchorage.

Seize the opportunity
Keeping on the conference circuit, the Polar Code and other aspects of Arctic shipping will be on the agenda for three days starting tomorrow in Malmö, Sweden. The Safe and Sustainable Shipping in a Changing Arctic Environment event features the participation of high-level executives and diplomats, including Koji Sekimizu, the secretary-general of the IMO, the UN body responsible for drawing up the Polar Code.

The steady decline in sea ice has meant new opportunities for the region, both on land, but particularly when it comes to maritime activity, such as oil exploration, fishing, shipping and tourism. Decision makers are trying to address the rapid changes faced by the region, but they sit in far off capitals.

Sometimes, their choices are better received than others; the passage of the Polar Code earlier this year, for example, is regarded as a good, if tentative, first step towards ensuring maritime safety. Other issues remain, however, including questions over the legal status of the Northwest Passage, indigenous rights, the role of non-Arctic states and America’s inability to pass the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Getting everyone on board about about these issues is the easy part. Getting them to work in sync to move them forward will require something of a sea change, figuratively speaking.

The proof is in the production
Depending on what you use as your benchmark, oil is trading at either $40 a barrel (West Texas Intermediate) or $45 (Brent). Regardless of which you follow, both are some $100 lower than they were in the spring of 2014, when the current slump began. The precipitous decline has been thoroughly discussed, both on this website and elsewhere. The continued downward pressure will ensure that the issue does not go away any time soon. In the Arctic, where little oil is actually being produced, the question remains whether the high cost of exploration can be justified at today’s prices.

With production costs of between $60 and $100 a barrel, it cannot. But, oil companies argue that the current price is a trough, not a sign the industry is flatlining. The era of high prices, they predict, will return, and likely well sooner than Arctic fields come on-line sometime in the next decade. Shell, which has spent $6 billion on its programme in Alaskan waters, has been the most watched of the Arctic hopefuls this summer. Longer-term projects like exploration off Greenland’s north-eastern coast, have also come under scrutiny for their cost and their environmental impact.

While both sides can provide evidence for their position, perhaps the most convincing statement of them all was the announcement last week by ENI, an Italian firm, that it plans to bring its Goliat field, located in the Barents, on line later this summer. That would be the best benchmark of them all.