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WASHINGTON — Canada will begin a two-year stint at the helm of the eight-nation Arctic Council amid a clamour of competing calls for leadership, as the ice recedes and the race heats up to extract resource riches while protecting a fragile and now-exposed environment.
While there’s near-unanimity that Canada will need to lead when it takes over from Sweden in May, the direction and pace remain in sharp dispute. The oil industry wants to get busy drilling; ocean shippers are eyeing cost-saving shortcuts across long-frozen seas, while environmentalists fear the melting polar pack leaves the Arctic vulnerable to unrestrained ravage. Most expect, and some fear, the Conservative government will tip towards development.
Leona Aglukkaq, the Health Minister tapped by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a surprise choice to represent Canada alongside the foreign ministers from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, “is clearly, on behalf of the government of Canada, taking a pro-development approach,” said Doug Matthews, an Alberta-based energy analyst who spent decades working in the Northwest Territories.
“The federal government is bending over backwards to accommodate the energy industry’s interest in the Arctic,” Mr. Matthews said Thursday in an interview. He expects Ottawa to try to bring a similar approach to the Arctic Council. “They’re sending signals to industry that development is welcome,” he said.
With a circumpolar pact on oil and gas drilling safeguards in the offing, that may be Ottawa’s first chance to signal which way it intends to lead the council.
Environmentalists fear the worst. “The Arctic Council and the Canadian government should put the brakes on the madness of using climate change to extract more oil, minerals and fish from the Arctic,” said Yossi Cadan, Greenpeace Canada’s campaigns director. Greenpeace wants Ottawa to champion a “ban on any oil drilling and destructive fishing and develop a plan, not for the next oil drills, but for the health of the Arctic 100 years from now.”
The Arctic, Mr. Cadan said, is “not Shell’s or Harper’s next tar sands project, any irresponsible development there will affect all humanity.”
There seems no chance of an Ottawa-led ban on drilling, although Ms. Aglukkaq, who grew up in Gjoa Haven, a hamlet of 1,200, and represents Nunavut, says a successful Arctic future means “we must build bridges between people who live there and the new realities.”
The stark new reality is of a massive transformation from a polar region icebound in winter and ice-choked in summer to an ocean largely ice-free in summer and, many scientists predict, increasingly warmed by human-caused climate change. For some, that means not just bridges but roads and mines and ports to ship the resources to the rest of the world.
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