The Arctic High North: Why Scotland must be represented

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by George Kerevan

PRACTICALLY the only time the myopic London media mentions anything north of the UK is when Icelandic volcano ash interrupts air travel in the UK. Now the latest ash crisis seems to be subsiding, we can expect the usual media silence to descend about matters in the North Atlantic and Arctic – what Norwegians call the High North.

However, while London sleeps, political and economic change is transforming the Arctic and its North Atlantic passageway close to Scotland. These changes are vital for Scotland’s economic future and security. But lacking the powers of an independent state, Scotland is being sidelined in developments on its very doorstep.    

Last September, a Danish cargo ship made a successful voyage through the melting waters of the Northeast Passage carrying iron ore from Norway to China, across the Arctic roof of the world. It was not the first ship to use this route but it was the first foreign-registered vessel Russia has allowed to make the voyage between two non-Russian ports.  The Northeast Passage is now a commercial reality thanks to global warming. Within a generation the focus of global maritime transport will switch to the seas just north of Scotland.

The melting of the Arctic seas is also opening up the area for exploitation of its fossil fuel and mineral deposits. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic seabed contains 20 per cent of the world’s oil and gas reserves. Last year, Cairn Energy, the Edinburgh oil independent, announced it had struck petroleum in the deep, untapped waters between Greenland and Canada. Cairn is the only producer currently granted permission to explore in this virgin region.

Unlike Antarctica, which since 1959 has been internationalised under a UN treaty, ownership of the Arctic is unresolved. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal nations can claim exclusive rights to exploit the seabed for 200 miles beyond their continental shelf.

Theoretically, that should leave much of the icy sea surrounding the North Pole a common zone open to exploitation by private companies. But early in the 20th century, Canada and Russia claimed all the territory from their coast to the North Pole itself, treating the Arctic icecap as if it was land. Other nations, including the United States, objected but then followed suit.

Now the ice is melting, matters have become even more complicated. Moscow is claiming that the underwater Lomonosov and Mendeleyev ridges, which stretch towards the North Pole, are a continuation of its continental shelf. Recognition of this claim would increase Russia’s exclusive economic zone by 1.2 million square kilometers. In 2006, an American oil company announced it intended to explore for oil in this area, arguing it was legally a common zone.  Moscow retaliated by sending a submarine to the seabed beneath the North Pole and planting a Russian flag.

A mini Cold War broke out in the area, which suddenly acquired a new name suitable for an Alistair MacLean novel – the High North. Russia sent Bear bombers to probe Scottish airspace – fortunately there were still Tornado fighters at Scottish RAF bases to meet them. NATO held a major exercise in northern Norway including troops from ostensibly neutral Sweden and Finland. They played out a scenario in which a hostile power called “Northland” seized offshore oilfields.

Since then, Arctic relations have thawed a bit.  Russia needs specialised Western technology and investment to develop deep-sea Arctic oil and gas fields. She also desperately needs European markets in which to sell this energy. So in April 2010, Russia and Norway resolved a long-standing maritime border dispute in the Barents Sea – half each.

But tensions remain, even between ostensible friends. For instance, Canada and America have a longstanding disagreement about their sea border north of Alaska. The rightwing Canadian Government is committed to defending these claims and has begun a military build-up including nine new Arctic patrol ships and a new deep-water port at Nanisivik on Baffin Island to service them.

Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway want to divide up the High North between them. America, which does not recognize the Law of the Sea, wants to declare the Arctic a common zone, relying on its technology and economic muscle to do exploit the area.
Where does the UK stand when it comes to the High North?  Nowhere militarily.

There is practically no conventional naval warfare presence left in Scotland, which accounts for half of Britain’s seacoast. The defence review has closed RAF airfields in Scotland, so any passing Bear bomber can do what it likes. All our Nimrod maritime reconnaissance planes have been scrapped. The UK has less ability to patrol the Atlantic than at any time since World War II.

Yet the future of the High North is of great importance to Scotland. Given our proximity and oil industry, Scotland’s interest lies in the Arctic becoming a common economic zone.  The opening of the Northeast Passage could also revive the old 1970s Oceanspan concept, with Scottish ports serving as the European end of a new global maritime trading system.

The nations bordering the Arctic and its North Atlantic passages coordinate via a body called the Arctic Council. Greenland and the Faroe Islands, though they have devolved administrations, are represented on the Arctic Council in the guise of Denmark. The UK has observer status but makes little of it. The Scottish Government should have direct access to the Arctic Council, either as an observer or as the official UK representative.

This month’s Artic Council meeting took place on 12 May in Nuuk, Greenland. Top of the agenda was a new agreement on cooperation in aeronautical and maritime search and rescue in the Arctic. However, the rescue decision has a wider implication. It is the first legally-binding agreement negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council and creates a precedent for the eight countries exerting political control over the area.

The Foreign Office in London, with its usual myopic international outlook, seems oblivious to these moves.  Another good reason Scotland should be independent.