Taking a long view in the far north

22/10/2007 The Arctic will become increasingly important, not least because of oil and gas, believes Norwegian foreign minister Johan Gahr Støre. But Norway will not be planting a flag at the North Pole.

Mr Støre identifies the far north as a strategic priority for the country in the years to come, and is convinced that the Barents Sea will be an important chapter in Norwegian oil history. He also notes that Norway’s offshore activity has been drawn gradually northwards.

 “But we must ensure that our feet are planted firmly on the path before taking another step,” Mr Støre observes. “The unified management plan for the Barents Sea now sets limits to what we do, but provides room for great opportunities. This plan will be assessed in a few years time.”

The minister is a busy man at the moment, but has nevertheless had time this autumn for a visit to Svalbard together with his German opposite number, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

“In a hectic life, when the norm is two minutes on the phone and 10 minutes for a passing chat, it’s unusual to get the chance to spend two days with another foreign minister,” he says. “We could talk together, see and experience glaciers and examine pictures of how they used to be. That provides a unique insight. The government’s policy is to expand knowledge of conditions in the far north, not least among big European countries. Germany is our largest gas customer, and an important ally and partner. We have many interests in common.”

Big issue
Climate challenges are a major issue in the Arctic Council, which brings together the foreign ministers of the countries in the region and is currently chaired by Mr Støre. He explains that Norway is working to boost the political significance of this body, which possesses strong specialist expertise about climate change in the Arctic.

“Ministerial meetings in the council only take place every other year. We want a stronger political focus, because issues relating to the Arctic will be so important. “Through the council, we’ve been able to influence the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But its work is based on consensus, so we must have everyone on board.  “We’ve been able to present new documentation on the consequences of melting ice, biological diversity and living conditions for indigenous people.  “It’s important to expose politicians to the challenges ahead of decisions to be taken by bodies such as the IPCC.”

Mr Støre agrees that climate change, because it makes the Arctic more accessible, contributes to increased competition over possible resources in the far north.

“But I’d emphasise that this lies well in the future. Our management plan sets clear limits for how far north we can go. Very deep water, transport distances and difficult climatic conditions will also present challenges.
“Although most of the Norwegian continental shelf has been delineated, certain unclarified areas remain. These include the Loophole in the Barents Sea, the Loop Ocean east of Jan Mayen and the Arctic Ocean north of Svalbard. “We documented our views to the international Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) last autumn. No date has been set for completing a consideration of our case.”

The minister denies that Norway has given up trying to agree a boundary line in the Barents Sea, although the talk today is mostly about cooperation with Russia rather than negotiation.

“This is a big issue, which covers defining a border at sea and will be significant for a number of economic sectors. These talks have a high priority. “Lack of an agreed frontier at sea is not a natural state of affairs between two neighbours. But we can’t refrain from cooperation just because a solution hasn’t been found.

“In other words, we have to work for both agreement and collaboration. Closer links between Norway and Russia increase the chances of bringing the negotiations to a conclusion.” 

With Russia recently planting its flag at the North Pole and expanding its military forces in the far north, the question is whether these developments make agreement harder to reach.

“We’re seeing a Russia with a stable government and strong centralisation of power around the president,” Mr Støre observes. “In many ways, that’s helped to clarify the position. Russia has emerged from the worst of its economic crisis. “I’d describe the outcome as a more forward-looking country which is also present and making itself felt to a greater extent in our own areas. “Its aerial activities are not directed against us, but represent an expression of a Russian presence along the lines which were familiar to us a number of years ago. “Russia is a demanding neighbour, but I wouldn’t say that this reflects a special challenge directed at us. We’re also well equipped to handle this kind of neighbourly condition.

“We’ve never been at war with the Russians, and have discovered how to live with our neighbour by taking a pragmatic approach.”

Asked about the Canadian statement of intent on building two military bases in the Arctic, Mr Støre calls it the kind of gesture that invites people to talk about a race for resources.

“After all, we ourselves planted a flag at the South Pole in 1911 following a contest. But we now live in a century when that method can’t be employed. “This issue must be determined with the aid of geological facts in the CLCS, and we have strongly urged the countries around the Arctic to think responsibly. We’ll be playing an active role in encouraging greater dialogue. “The impression which could be left by the flag-planting is that the rule of law doesn’t apply in this area, and first-comers can take what they please. That’s completely wrong. “A rich body of law of the sea applies to the Arctic Ocean, and this is the channel which must be followed. It’s quite unnecessary to think in military terms here.”

A 25 per cent participating interest in the first development stage of Russia’s Shtokman gas discovery in the Barents Sea was recently awarded to France’s Total. Asked how Norway might participate in this field, Mr Støre notes that discussions on this issue are still under way between StatoilHydro and operator Gazprom.

“In Norway, such matters are decided by the company,” he points out. “But we’re supporting it because we believe participation on acceptable terms will mean a strengthening of collaboration with Russia. “We’ll have to see what the outcome is. So far, Snøhvit is the only field developed in the Barents Sea and that’s on the Norwegian side. “Shtokman offers big opportunities, but bringing it on stream will be expensive and technically complex.”

He believes that the Gazprom-Total collaboration contains elements of a Russian desire to deepen political relations with other countries – France in this case - as part of such deals.

“We must always include that dimension, but I’d also emphasise that the Russians need partners who can help to implement this complex project.
 “Our view remains that Norwegian companies have knowledge of and experience from such demanding waters, but that solutions must come from the commercial players.”

Moreover, Mr Støre rejects claims that the Russians are seeking to achieve their boundary-line ambitions in the Barents Sea in exchange for a Norwegian share of Shtokman. Asked what challenges are presented by growing oil shipments along the Norwegian coast from Arctic developments, he notes that shipping poses problems along the whole coastline.

“But these are particularly great in areas like the far north, where the environment is so vulnerable. We must maintain our emergency response, think about sailing channels and develop generally-accepted standards for maritime traffic. “Together with our minister of petroleum and energy and Det Norske Veritas, I recently launched a project to achieve joint Russo-Norwegian health, safety and environmental standards in the Barents Sea.”


Updated: 04/09/2009