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Ask either of the two people responsible for drafting the bill that today become the European Parliament’s Arctic strategy, and neither will rank a ban on oil and gas exploration among their biggest concerns.
“Given the growing geopolitical interest in the region, our main goal should be to keep tensions low and prevent militarisation, not prevent drilling,” says Urmas Paet, an Estonian MEP and a co-author of the measure, which passed by a 483-100 margin.
The vote came as little surprise: the policy had gained widespread support as it worked its way through the parliament’s foreign affairs and environment committees. In recent weeks, however, it became the subject of a heated discussion over language added to the measure that would call on Brussels to oppose oil and gas extraction in the Arctic.
As it turns out, one proposed paragraph, expressing the parliament’s opposition to drilling in “icy” Arctic waters, was adopted. One that would have opposed all Arctic drilling, failed entirely. The third paragraph passed in part: MEPs agreed to support a ban on fossil-fuel subsidides, but not to work for a ban on Arctic oil drilling.
Originally, the policy, according to its other author, Sirpa Pietikäinen, a Finnish MEP, had intentionally left out any mention of oil or gas drilling. Instead, it seeks to address environmental concerns by pushing to require firms operating in the Arctic and wishing to market their products in Europe to prove that their operations did not damage the environment.
“We chose to look at it in a larger perspective,” Ms Pietikäinen says. “Drilling is just one type of resource extraction. And Frankly, if you look at it from a 30-50-year time-frame, you need to ask yourself whether it makes sense to open any new drilling at all, let alone in the Arctic.”
If implemented, environmental impact assessments, as the reviews are known, “would head off most problems”, in part she believes, because of the EU’s economic and political heft.
“The EU’s size gives it a big role in the Arctic,” Ms Pietikäinen says, suggesting that Brussels ought to seek to have as much influence in the region as it does in the Mediterranean, in part by being involved in the Arctic Council, and in part by involving itself more in other regional institutions.
Norway had reacted particularly strongly to the proposed opposition to oil drilling, something Ms Pietikäinen found natural, given that the country is seeking to expand drilling in the Barents Sea in order to replace declining North Sea production. But, she says, the environmental message of the policy was directed mostly at the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
“You could read this as a signal to countries like Norway or Russia or the US, but the main point was to tell the commission that this the eleventh hour if we want the EU to take a strong, pro-active role in the Arctic.”
Mr Paet had a similar message for the commission: “This is the first document issued by the European Parliament or the European Commission that can serve as an Arctic strategy,” he says.
The European Commission has taken a positiion on the Arctic multiple times, most recently in a document released last spring. Critics, however, point out that the commission has chosen to focus on softer issues like the environment and research.
“Security and geopolitics are absent and this needs to change, given their increasing importance, ” Mr Paet says. “I hope the outcome of this will be an Arctic policy that does much more to address emerging issues like navigation and resources that could become a source of tension.”
For now, the European Parliament’s strategy remains only a signal to the commission about the sort of approach it would like the EU to take towards the Arctic. Mr Paet, however, notes that a first step towards recognising parliament’s strategy would be to set to aside funding for number of specific areas it mentions, including infrastructure and communications.
The Norwegians walked away from today’s vote with an outcome that was better than they thought would be possible, based on the direction of the debate, according to Trond Haukanes, the head of the North Norway European Office, which represents the region’s interests in Brussels.
He considers the matter closed, but he still wonders whether appearing to work against development in the North will come back to haunt Brussels.
“Today’s vote tells us the European Parliament won’t be seeking to influence our energy business in the near future. That’s something we can live with,” he says, “but the parliament has sent a signal that they are working against those countries that want to develop their resources.”
He recognises that there are competing opinions in Brussels when it comes to resource extraction, but he finds that the fact that “someone pushed a decision into the system” to be unfortunate.
“Everyone was surprised that we wound up talking about it,” he says. Not least, it turns out, the authors themselves.