Warm is the New Cold: Global Warming, Oil, UNCLOS Article 76, and How an Arctic Treaty Might Stop a New Cold War
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Increased oil and gas development will adversely affect the Arctic through increased oil spills and development infrastructure.14 Oil spills are more likely in the Arctic because oil tankers are not built to withstand collisions with sea ice, which is becoming more mobile and unpredictable as the Arctic warms.15 Oil spills are especially dangerous in the Arctic because of the region’s cold temperatures, which decrease rates of oil decomposition, resulting in the elimination of wildlife habitats and feeding grounds affected by any spills.16 Elimination of habitat and feeding grounds will have a profound effect on Arctic species, which rely on a short food chain that can be fatally disrupted by the loss of even a single species.17 These adverse effects will be compounded by increased oil and gas development infrastructure, which will include an array of new support facilities on land, oil rigs at sea, on- and off-shore pipelines, and increased air, land, and sea transportation.18 This infrastructure will interfere with wildlife feeding, breeding, rest, and migration.19 The Arctic is, by its nature, an unusually vulnerable environment and global warming compounds this vulnerability.20 The adverse effects of increased oil and gas exploration would even further aggravate the region’s vulnerability.21
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Given the tenor of events following Russia’s flag planting stunt, the threat of nonpeaceful disputes over Arctic sovereignty is not implausible.224 A week after Russia’s submarine dive, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada would construct two new military facilities in the Arctic, build six to eight navy patrol ships to guard the area, and increase its military forces by 900 troops in order to protect Canada’s asserted sovereignty over the Arctic and its natural resources.225 Russian bombers appeared over the Arctic a few days later, for the first time since the Cold War.226 Harper, flanked by his Defense Minister and Canadian troops, said in a speech at the site of one of the future facilities that “Canada’s new government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: Use it or lose it.”227 As troops, ships, and bombers circle the Arctic, this fragile region faces yet another threat: war.
The Commission has a limited role in the success or failure of the coastal States’ Article 76 claims. It is powerless to stop a coastal State whose claim it has denied from nevertheless behaving as if the claim had been approved. For example, if the Commission rejects Russia’s Article 76 claim, Russia could nevertheless continue to claim Alpha-Mendeleev and Lomonosov Ridges as part of its continental shelf, and could develop oil and gas in those areas of the Arctic. If Canada disagrees with Russia’s behavior—as it certainly would—it is not clear what peaceful means it has to make its dispute. Thus, the specter of armed conflict—for which Russia and Canada appear to be preparing—looms over an already dire situation.