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The Arctic Council Negotiates and Adopts a New Agreement on Marine Oil Preparedness and Response

Monday, 09 September 2013
On 15 May 2013 the Eighth Biennial Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council was held in Kiruna, Northern Sweden. The Meeting marked the end of the Swedish Chairmanship and the beginning of the Canadian Chairmanship. Approximately 300 participants, including ministers, delegates from the eight Arctic states*, indigenous people and observers attended the Meeting to map out long-term pathways towards the sustainable future of the Arctic region.

Most importantly, delegates from the eight Arctic states resulted in the signature of the “Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic” after two years of intensive negotiations**. This Agreement which is the second-ever legally binding conventional regime to be negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council*** aims at establishing a framework to substantially improve the procedures for tackling oil spills in the Circumpolar region.

As the Senior Arctic Officials adequately stressed in the Senior Arctic Officials’ Report to Ministers in May 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland: “The Arctic is likely to see increased shipping and efforts to exploit the natural resources of the region in the coming decades. This, in turn, increases the potential for harm to both human life and the Arctic environment.”

In light of climate change and melting ice in the Arctic Ocean that opens up wide prospects for exploitation of the Arctic’s riches, the Arctic Council decided to establish a Task Force with the mandate to develop an international instrument on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response at the 2011 Arctic Ministerial Meeting in Nuuk, Greenland. The Task Force chaired by Co-Chair, Ambassador Karsten Klepsvik (Norway) with the assistance of the two other Co-Chairs, Ambassador David Balton (USA) and Ambassador Anton Vasiliev (Russia), conducted its negotiations in five rounds: in Oslo, Norway, from 17 to 18 October 2011, in St.Petersburg, Russia, from 13 to 14 December 2011, near Anchorage, Alaska, USA from 20 to 22 March 2012, in Helsinki, Finland, from 18 to 20 June 2012  and in Reykjavik, Iceland, from 9 to 11 October 2012.

In March 2012 the Arctic Council also called for the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group to develop Operational Guidelines to be appended to the Agreement in support of the Task Force, taking into consideration that combating oil spills in harsh Arctic weather conditions would be a technically challenging issue. The EPPR Working Group, comprised of legal and technical representatives from the Arctic countries, focused heavily on notification and coordination and cooperation in response operations as a first priority.

Τhe negotiation process was  featured by a highly collaborative spirit, with all governments committed to enhance their cooperation in addressing emerging issues in the Arctic region. Envisioning the promotion of the Arctic countries’ common interest, the Task Force concluded its negotiations by finalizing the draft text of the legal-binding Agreement on 11 October 2012, the last day of the Fifth Task Force Meeting convened in Reykjavik, Iceland. However, some technical sections of the non-binding Appendices remained open. In this context, the Task Force entrusted the EPPR Working Group with continuing to develop a complete set of Operational Guidelines for implementation of the Agreement.**** The EPPR Working Group discussed, completed and submitted the guidelines to the Task Force for approval in early January 2013.  According to its mandate , the Task Force presented the result of its negotiation at the Arctic Council’s Ministerial Meeting in May 2013, where the delegates finally adopted the “Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic”.

The new Agreement is regarded as an effective tool that will help Arctic states to jointly address potential oil spills in the untamed Arctic region.In conformity with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC), the Agreement contains mutual commitments to provide assistance in case of an oil pollution incident that surpasses one state’s ability to respond. It also encourages increased cooperation, exchange of information as well as joint exercises between the Parties to handle potential oil disasters effectively. Interestingly, the non-binding Operational Guidelines appended to the Agreement set out provisions to guide ,inter alia, cooperative response operations in areas beyond national jurisdiction of any Party (i.e. on the high seas) in the interests of pan-arctic stewardship. This is crucial since large marine areas of the Arctic are deemed international waters.

According to the Article 22(2) of the Agreement it will enter into force 30 days after the date of receipt by the depositary of the last written notification through diplomatic channels that the Parties have completed the internal procedures required for its entry into force.

Finally, while many welcomed the new Agreement, others felt that the language used was too vague on oil industry liability. Critics also argued that the Arctic Council failed to set a minimum level for the “appropriate steps” to be taken to combat an oil spill, hinting that the Arctic countries put their economic interests ahead of the environmental protection, thus sacrificing the sustainable development of the Arctic region.

*Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
 ** See, “Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic”:
*** The first legally binding agreement negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council was the “Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic”.
**** The EPPR Working Group drafted Operational Guidelines and discussed them in depth during  EPPR meeting which was held from 5 to 6 October 2012 in Copenhagen Denmark. Best practices from other international bi- and multilateral agreements were reviewed and were important input to the draft text. The second draft was submitted to the Task Force for consideration in their meeting which was held from 9 to 11 October in Reykjavik, Iceland. Based on discussions in the Task Force meeting, it was decided that EPPR would develop a complete set of Operational Guidelines rather than just priority chapter.

Sources: Arctic Council
For further information: (Marine Oil Pollution Presentation Obs_meeting_nov_2012_pres_Marine_Oil_Pollution.pdf)

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