Russian oil, cooperation over commerce & Canada’s Arctic highway : 2017 Arctic Year in Review

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Cars on the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway in Arctic Canada on November 15, 2017. The opening of this road, and what it will mean for the people and economy of the region, are one of the top Arctic stories of 2017 says Mia Bennett from Cryopolitics. (Melinda Trochu/AFP/Getty Images)
The end of the year is often a time to take stock, and here at Eye on the Arctic we’re no different.

That’s why, as 2017 draws to a close, we’re checking in with our bloggers to get their take on all things Arctic; from science to society, from media to diplomacy.

Up today is Mia Bennett, an Arctic expert who runs the Cryopolitics Arctic news and analysis blog.

Feature Interview with Mia Bennett
Mia Bennett, manager of the Cryopolitics news and analysis blog. (Courtesy Mia Bennett)

Eye on the Arctic: Good, bad or bumbling – how would you sum up general Arctic news coverage in 2017?

Mia Bennett: Largely, coverage of the Arctic has been improving. We’re seeing less focus on narratives like “The Race for Resources.” And there’s increasing examination of climate change and successful international cooperation.

What were your two most important Arctic stories of the year?  

1. Opening of Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway in Arctic Canada: It means a lot for these two communities (Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk) to be connected now in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.   This is an exciting project because although the highway was funded by the Canadian government, the road was fully constructed by two Indigenous-owned companies. It shows a lot about the kind of development being led, in some parts of the Arctic, by Indigenous Peoples.

It’s also socially important: for the people that got jobs working on this highway for five years; for the people that will now hopefully have lower grocery and fuel costs; and maybe for future development like tourism as well.

2. Commercial fishing ban in Central Arctic OceanOne of the reasons this is exciting is because it’s based on the precautionary principle. Basically what these countries, and the European Union (EU), decided was, ‘this is an instance where we’ll wait and see what the science tells us before we go fishing in an ecosystem where we don’t know what those effects would be.’

It’s a good sign of science guiding policy and development in the Arctic before it takes place.

At the same time, (the agreement) also highlights the degree to which the Asian states and the EU have an important influence in Arctic affairs and these issues aren’t just being decided by the Arctic Council.

U.S. involvement in the Arctic Council seems remarkably untouched by the chaos we’ve seen elsewhere under the Trump administration – what gives?

First, the U.S. is no longer chair. Its role is a little less high profile than before, so, on a day-to-day level, the work can still be carried on by career diplomats who might hopefully be removed from some of the chaos occurring both within the White House and within the higher ranks of the State Department. But still, at the Fairbanks ministerial we saw a different  perspective presented by the U.S.

The Fairbanks Declaration still underscored climate change as the number 1 threat facing the Arctic. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks at the ministerial still avoided this phrase for the most part saying: “…the Council has strengthened resilience at the national and local levels in the face of environmental and other change.” So I think that was a glaring lack of calling attention to climate change.

But even though the Trump administration might not be messing too directly with U.S. involvement in the Arctic Council, I think we’re seeing different stances from Washington, D.C. towards the Arctic at a more federal to state level, for example, the Trump administration trying to promote oil and gas drilling in Alaska.

But I think we do have to keep in mind what the longer term effects of America’s retreat from international diplomacy, and also Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, will have on the country’s participation in the Arctic Council in the long run.

Was there any Arctic issue or event that you felt was overlooked, underreported – or that you feel just didn’t get the attention it deserved in 2017?

The slow, creeping increase in Arctic oil exploration: Just the other year we had Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then U.S. President Barack Obama put moratoriums on offshore drilling in the Arctic. So people in North America might think there’s a bit of a standstill up North.  But on the European side, Norway, and particularly Russia,  have been going full-steam ahead into Arctic oil and gas exploration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin just opened the long-awaited $27-billion Yamal LNG project in the Russian Arctic. That project was partly funded by China and really has succeeded despite ongoing U.S. and European sanctions. Russia’s oil output from the Arctic is close to coming on par with production on Alaska’s North Slope. So we’ve really seen Russia turn into a big producer of Arctic oil. I think this is something that, because it’s been slow in the making, hasn’t really got the attention it deserves as a story.

What will you be watching for in 2018?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:  Will it be opened to leasing and exploration?

The Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut: That will be exciting – having a permanent Canadian research presence with this big shiny research station. That will be something to watch.

Future of  Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR) : Will Putin seek to nationalize oil and gas shipping along the NSR ? That could have pretty interesting effects. Especially if China wants to integrate the Northern Sea Route into its massive Belt and Road Initiative, there could be some tensions there.

The above Q&A has been edited and abridged.

Listen to the full Eye on the Arctic interview with Mia Bennett:

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Other interviews in this series:

Fishing diplomacy, rethinking China & how Twitter is improving northern news : 2017 Arctic Year in Review

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Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is a journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project.

Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the violent death of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on violence and trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

Twitter: @Arctic_EQ

Email: eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

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