In cooperation with the 2015 High North Dialogue we conduct a series of podcast interviews with some of the speakers and participants of the conference as well as other Arctic voices. This project is a collaboration between the University of Nordland’s High North Center and The Arctic Institute. The podcasts will be available on iTunes via The Arctic Institute, as well as on the High North Dialogue Website.
Marc Jacobsen: Hi Michael, thanks for joining us today.
Michael Byers: It is very good to be here with you, thank you.
Marc Jacobsen: Can I ask you to start by telling us about your current research as it relates to the Arctic and your plans for the near time future?
Michael Byers: Well yes, my research at this very moment concerns some issues of military procurement as they relate to the Arctic. As some listeners might know, the opening of the Arctic due to climate change is bringing more activity to the Arctic and with that a greater need for search and rescue and for policing, for patrols to deal with non-state threats like smuggling or illegal immigration.
It is in this context that I have done some work on the issue of the procurement, the acquisition of search and rescue planes, Arctic patrol vessels and, also related to that, the issue of which kind of fighter jets the Canadian military should acquire to enable it to continue Arctic patrols.
Marc Jacobsen: The theme of the High North Dialogue 2015 is ‘Arctic business and security’. First, what comes to mind when you think of security in the Arctic?
Michael Byers: Well, when I think of security in the Arctic, I think primarily of non-state challenges. Not challenges related to the possibility of conflict with other countries, but the challenges that come from increased activity. Whether it is increased tourism, increased shipping, increased mining and oil and gas exploration activity, and with that I see an increased need for search and rescue, which in most Arctic countries is provided by the military or the coast guard. And also related to that, in terms of security, I see increased need for policing, for what we call a “constabulary” function, provided either by militaries or by coast guards to patrol coast lines, to watch out for criminal activity, and where necessary to intervene, to catch criminals, or to stop illegal or dangerous things from occurring. And given how very large the Arctic is – and given how inhospitable natural conditions there can be – these are challenging functions that require capable military or coast guard forces to venture across great distances to provide these essential functions of the state.
Marc Jacobsen: During the past year, we have seen how Russia’s actions in Ukraine have influenced the relations with the other Arctic states. This has especially been visible in a rhetorical escalation – with Canada and Russia being the hardliners – and, of course, in the economic sanctions. What has been your impression of this development? And to what extent do you think it will influence Arctic politics and cooperation in the near future?
Michael Byers: Well, the first thing to say is that I condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Russia has violated international law in Ukraine and continues to do so and that needs to be condemned and to be punished through sanctions, so I give no leeway to Russia when it comes to Ukraine. At the same time, I think the Arctic is distinct from Ukraine and I think we must recognize a very long history of working with Russia despite tensions and problems in our relationship. For instance in 1973, the NATO countries – including Canada, the United States and Norway – came together with the Soviet Union to negotiate the Polar Bear Treaty to prohibit the hunting of polar bears from helicopters in order to save that iconic species. That was in 1973 – at the height of the Cold War – and although relations with Russia are poor at the moment, they are still much better than they were in the 1970s or the 1980s, and therefore I insist on pointing out to people that we can have problems, we can condemn Russia for its actions in Ukraine, but we still can usefully cooperate, can productively cooperate on some issues including in the Arctic. The other thing I should say in this regard is that politicians in several countries are sometimes guilty of speaking with too much rhetorical flourish to exaggerate their positions. So to give you one example of this, the Canadian prime minister has been very strong in his language directed at Russia, but at the same time Canada is one Western country which has refused to impose sanctions against Rosneft, the big Russian state-owned oil company, or Rostec, the big Russian state-owned manufacturing conglomerate. These are entities that the European Union and the United States have sanctioned; Canada has not, so ironically although Mr Harper has perhaps the strongest voice in condemning Russia, his own actions are weaker than those of his allies.
Marc Jacobsen: The deadline for Canada, Denmark and Russia to submit their territorial claims to the Arctic Ocean is getting closer and, reportedly, it is likely that there will be an overlap. Not least regarding the geographic North Pole. Could you please tell us how such a potential disagreement could be solved?
Michael Byers: Well, the first thing to say is that, as you and I speak there has been good news very recently in that Russia has confirmed that its new submission to extended continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean will be the same size and will cover the same area as its initial submission back in 2001. And if these reports are correct, this means that Russia is not going to be submitting data, not going to making a claim to any seabed on the Canadian and Danish side of the North Pole. Essentially, Russia’s claim will stop at the North Pole, despite the fact that it might have been able to make a scientific case to seabed closer to Canada or to Greenland. This is a very positive development. This suggests that Russia is compromising, is looking for a reasonable solution rather than seeking to extend its claim as far as the geology and geography might allow. I hope that Denmark will be similarly reasonable when it makes its submission, and I hope that the government of Canada will reconsider its decision in December 2013 to not submit its Arctic Ocean data because of a plan to extend further into areas that almost certainly belong to Denmark and/or Russia.
Marc Jacobsen: Let’s turn towards the question about business – the other theme of the High North Dialogue. What comes to mind when you think of business in the Arctic?
Michael Byers: Well, to some degree we have already been discussing business, because when we talk about military procurement, we talk about the companies that build aircraft, that build ships and so companies that manufacture equipment in Arctic countries, although the manufacturing might not take place in the Arctic, are very involved in Arctic matters. The same thing goes for submissions concerning extended continental shelves, because those shelves may contain minerals or oil or gas, or gas hydrates that could be exploited in the future. So every issue that we talk about in the Arctic has implications for business. Businesses, for instance, need to have world-class search and rescue if they are going to engage in commercial activity in the Arctic. It’s a very dangerous place and a very remote area, so all of these different issues across the board, directly concern business. Even the environmental protection issues concern business, because as we know, businesses that want to operate in the Arctic, need to have the permission of governments, and need to have, what in English we call “social license”, need to have the support of the populations of the country in which they wish to operate. Especially in democratic countries like Norway or Canada. So every issue that we discuss in the Arctic has implications for business. Businesses that want to operate in the Arctic, want to have governments in partnership with them, providing world class infrastructure, providing, world class search and rescue, and providing the kind of environmental protection that ensures public support. And responsible, reputable businesses know this, and that’s why we actually make such great progress in the Arctic, because most companies that operate there are responsible and want to make the system work for everyone and for every interest.
Marc Jacobsen: You have already mentioned the need for new search and rescue technologies and equipment. Moreover, drones and satellites are frequently mentioned as new technologies that could optimize surveillance of the national Arctic territories. Have you registered a need for other kinds of new technologies in the Arctic and what, in your opinion, could be done to meet this need?
Michael Byers: Well certainly as technology advances, new opportunities arise, but we must not forget the role of existing technologies also, so Canada for instance has a synthetic aperture radar satellite called Radarsat-2 – that is in operation at this moment – that can not only detect ships at night through clouds, but can achieve such a high degree of resolution that it can positively identify the individual vessel, what its name is, where it comes from. This is a very, very powerful tool for surveillance, because it means that we don’t need to send an aircraft or a drone to get pictures of a ship. We can do that from space already, and there is a new generation of these radar satellites that is in production now, that will only expand Canada’s capabilities. Other Arctic countries have the same or similar capabilities, and if they don’t or if they wish to expand, they can always procure images from the Canadian satellite. It’s a commercially available capability. So that is just one example. We also need to remember that Arctic countries do have patrol aircraft that are in operation, and the question is not new technology, but actually providing the funding to pay for fuel and to pay for the personnel to operate more flights in the Arctic. We will see further development in terms of radar and sonar that could, for instance, provide greater awareness with regard to the entrances to Arctic straits like the Northwest Passage or the Northern Sea Route, and we are certainly seeing improvements in the ability to map the seabed, which is relevant for international law purposes in the central Arctic Ocean. But it is also extraordinarily helpful for shipping if we know exactly how deep the water is at every single point, and so, yes, the technology is improving but our capabilities in terms of technology are already quite good when it comes to things like surveillance. Where I get excited about technology is the ability of technology to reduce our environmental impacts in the Arctic. So I get excited about the possibilities for alternative sources of energy that could reduce the use of diesel fuel in the Arctic. I also get excited by the possibility in installing scrubber technology onto ships to reduce dramatically the amount of black carbon that is produced. Black carbon is a very powerful climate forcer, a very powerful contribution to climate change that we could almost eliminate through the use of new technologies, and that’s where I think we need to focus our attention. The Arctic is not going to be a place for armed conflict between different countries. We know that. We live in a very tightly integrated world. Even the problems with Russia right now do not change the fact that Russia is a member of the World Trade Organization, and a very important partner of the European Union. So these technologies in terms of enhancing our ability to reduce our environmental impact in the Arctic will in turn promote the expansion of activity there in a way that benefits all interests, including not just interests of business, but the interests of the environment and national populations also.
Marc Jacobsen: The potential large amounts of non-living natural resources and the emerging shipping routes in the Arctic have been objects of global interest for quite some time now. The current outlook is, however, not so optimistic due to lower oil prices and the development of shale gas, among other things. Do you think that oil, gas, minerals and shipping in the Arctic will continue to attract global interest, or are the days with the Arctic bonanza over?
Michael Byers: Well, the shipping is definitely increasing and that needs to be the focus of some attention. Of course shipping is increasing because climate changes have an increased impact on Arctic sea ice, so this is not an entirely good thing. It’s a consequence of something that is very serious. The shipping particularly needs attention in terms of ensuring that it proceeds in an environmentally responsible manner, because even a spill of fuel oil from a large ship could cause quite severe environmental damage. But the shipping is coming definitely, and already along the northern coast of Norway and into the Barents Sea we see extremely busy waters. We see less on the Canadian and American side, but that will come also as the sea ice recedes and thins over time. In terms of oil and gas development, it depends a great deal on where you are in the Arctic, because in places like Northern Norway and in the Western portions of the Russian Arctic, sea ice is no longer of concern or less of a concern and that means that economically this is fairly normal deep water drilling and that can proceed at fairly competitive prices. It’s when it gets into the North American Arctic in particular that the cost of oil and gas exploration goes up because of sea ice, which makes for relatively short drilling seasons, and also because of a relative lack of infrastructure. The most Northern port in Canada is in Churchill, Manitoba, which is 1000 kilometres south of the Northwest Passage. We just don’t have the kind of crucial infrastructure to support serious oil and gas activity in the Arctic offshore, at least not yet and probably not for several decades. So again, it does depend on where you are and yes the world price of these resources does matter, but I don’t think we need to be in a rush to develop all the Arctic’s oil and gas, because among other things we know that we cannot because of climate change. The contribution to climate change caused by burning oil and gas, we simply cannot from a survival perspective, burn all the oil and gas on the planet. We have to use our existing oil and gas to transition to different sources of energy. That is the challenge! And I come back to the possibilities for alternative energy in the Arctic, which has vast potential for hydroelectric, for geothermal for tidal energy. I just returned from Iceland which has managed to become an almost entirely alternative energy country and that’s a tribute to Iceland that other Arctic countries should aim to follow.
Marc Jacobsen: Well, Michael. Thank you very much for taking the time to share your perspectives on the Arctic with us. I look very much forward to seeing you at the coming High North Dialogue conference in Bodø.
Michael Byers: Well, it’s a fabulous conference and I encourage everyone to attend. I will be there, and I look forward to it.
Marc Jacobsen: Thanks for joining us for this podcast. Follow along with the series on iTunes or via our websites highnorthdialogue.no and thearcticinstitute.org. The music you’ve heard at the beginning and at the end comes from Hebber Zepherin and can be found at ccmixture.org.