Norway is expanding oil drilling operations farther north into the Arctic. Environmentalists are concerned about the fragile Arctic ecosystem, and campaigners worry relations with Russia will deteriorate as Norway pushes the limits of the Svalbard treaty.
The Svalbard archipelago is northwest of Norway, east of Greenland and south of the North Pole. In addition to the 2,667 people who lived in Svalbard as of 2016, polar bears, Svalbard reindeer and Arctic foxes make their home in the remote and rugged terrain. Svalbard is one of the northernmost inhabited areas of the world.
“Irrespective of changes in the environment, the Arctic is a very harsh place,” said Ilan Kelman, a professor at UCL and Agder University in Norway. “A lot can go wrong, and when something goes wrong … it can cause extensive damage for a long time.”
Several environmental groups, including WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Norway, sent an open letter to the Norwegian government pointing out its long track record of ignoring the wisdom of environmentalists to not continue a decades-long northward expansion of oil exploration. “Given that we don’t yet have the technology to clean up spills in an Arctic environment, it really doesn’t make any sense to continue with offshore extraction there,” Kelman said of the Svalbard move.
Two of the reasons that this oil expansion is so tricky are the Svalbard treaty and the definition of the “ice edge.” Originally called the Spitsbergen Treaty, eight countries signed it in Paris in 1920 to try to regulate administrative and economic activities in an area that has been compared to the Wild West. Now, 46 countries are involved. The treaty states that Norway governs Svalbard legally and administratively, but that citizens from all treaty signatory nations can access Svalbard for economic activities. No nation, including Norway, is allowed to permanently station its military on the archipelago. Some experts are worried that Norway’s petroleum development in Svalbard will cause tension with other countries, especially Russia.
Then there’s the ice edge, that place where open seas meet ice. This area is important because it’s where marine mammals, fish and birds feed on plankton. Because it’s so ecologically sensitive, the ice edge has been a no-fly zone for petroleum activities. But Norway has continually nudged its definition of the ice edge north to accommodate oil extraction. This latest move to open parts of Svalbard to petroleum companies is the farthest push north yet.
Image via Einar Storsul