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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

China in the Arctic?

Air Date: Week of

The Greenland Arctic (Photo: Christine Zenino)

The Arctic Council consists of eight Arctic countries and six indigenous groups. But since oil and gas riches have been discovered in the far north, non-Arctic countries like China and India now want a seat at the table. Tony Penikett chaired this year’s Council meeting. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that Arctic indigenous groups are the largest landholders in the region and have the most to gain or lose from oil drilling.


GELLERMAN: The rush is on in the resource rich Arctic. So in an effort to coordinate and manage the region, the eight nations with territory in the far north form the Arctic Council. Representatives from the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland, just met in Toronto to consider the fate of the council, and the Arctic.

Six indigenous communities have permanent participant status on the council, and at issue is whether they should allow China, Brazil and India to join several European nations as observers. Tony Penikett, former Premier of the Yukon, chaired this year's Arctic Council meeting. He says global warming in the region is a game changer.

PENIKETT: Well, suddenly the Arctic has become hot. Not only has climate change significantly reduced the polar ice cap that leads many people to believe that there’s greater access to the oil and gas resources that may be below the sea bed, but also that transportation routes across northern Russia and across northern Canada may be opened up sometime in the near future.

The Arctic Region (Va Xzine)

And, of course, countries like China and India that have a huge interest energy questions, and countries like South Korea and Singapore which have huge interests as far as shipping matters, would very much like to be in the room when these kinds of issues are discussed. The problem for some of the people, particularly the indigenous people, is that if very powerful non-Arctic states get into the room and start dominating the conversation, they’re worried that their voices would be drowned out.

GELLERMAN: So, what kind of riches are there in the Arctic, in terms of mineral resources, oil, gas?

PENIKETT: Well, there’s been a lot of, I think, unfortunate hype in many headlines around the world suggesting that there’s some kind of huge gold mine waiting to be plundered, you know, a kind of Wild West kind of way, Klondike Gold Rush kind of way. But even a responsible agency in Canada, the Geological Survey of Canada, estimates that in the high Arctic islands in Canada alone, there’s something like a trillion dollars worth of oil and gas.

GELLERMAN: Whoa. Do you mind…can the resources and the riches in the Arctic be safely extracted?

PENIKETT: Can they be done? I think the general rule is if they cant, if resources can’t be extracted sustainably, and if they can’t be done in a way that produces benefits for northern communities and for northern peoples, I think the general rule is, well, lets leave them in the ground.

The Greenland Arctic (Photo: banyanman)

GELLERMAN: Do you think that’s even conceivable when you’re talking about a trillion dollars of oil and gas?

PENIKETT: Yes, because that trillion dollars, which, of course, is a theoretical number, it’s very, they’re very hard to access. And, if you think about the Inuit who live in northern Canada, the Inuit are unique among all the peoples of the world because they didn’t just live on the coastline, but they actually lived, hunted, fished, and actually lived on the sea ice. That’s the sea ice which is now melting. These are people who have a huge stake and a huge interest in those resources and how they’re developed and how their environment is protected. And their view is very much that of stewards.

GELLERMAN: If the indigenous peoples say ‘no resource extraction in the Arctic homelands,’ do the world’s nations respect that?

PENIKETT: Well, you need to understand that in Alaska, in Canada and Greenland, as a result of the land claim settlements, indigenous people are themselves large landowners now. The Inuit in the eastern Arctic of Canada, in Nunavut, have a land claims settlement of 350,000 square kilometers. They collectively own that land, but they are in fact, the largest, private landowners in the world. The fact of the matter is that most of the new mines that are being developed in Nunavut are being developed on privately owned Inuit lands. And, so the major beneficiary from the development of those resources are, in fact, the Inuit people themselves.

GELLERMAN: It’s ironic. I mean, here we’re burning fossil fuels, we have global warming, the Arctic melts which makes it accessible, which allows us to extract, make it possible to extract, more carbon fossil fuels and more global warming.

PENIKETT: Well, the irony is certainly not lost on northern indigenous people. I mean Mary Simon, a Canadian Inuit leader who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in the same year that Al Gore won his on the climate change issue, often talks of the right of the Inuit to be cold. By that she means, their traditional environment was cold.


They would say, therefore, that just because they’re on the receiving end, or, if you like, among the first victims of climate change, should not be a reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to get some benefit from those resources in their ground if they are extracted. And in the Greenlanders, the Inuit in Greenland, the Greenlanders would say ‘yes, we’re going to develop responsibly, develop our oil and gas, because so far we’ve never benefited from the resources and we want to benefit from the resources so that we have some money to educate our future generations, to provide healthcare for them, but also to have the resources to protect their own environment.’

They don't want to be divorced from the world economy, but they do want to have more mastery of their own homelands.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Penikett, thank you so very much.

PENIKETT: It's a pleasure talking to you.

GELLERMAN: That's Tony Penikett, former Premier of the Yukon, and chairman of this year’s Arctic Council meeting which just concluded.



Arctic Council


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