By Commodore L:alit Kapur (Retd)
The Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council held at Iqualuit on 24 April 2015 saw Canada handing over Chairmanship of the Arctic Council for a two-year term to USA. A high level inter-governmental forum to address issues faced by Arctic governments as well as the nearly 4 million people that inhabit the region, the Arctic Council members are states with Arctic territory, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and USA. India, along with China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Spain and UK have permanent observer status.
The Arctic has been much discussed in the last few months, primarily because of the effects of global warming. Two broad areas of benefit arise as the Arctic grows warmer and its ice cover melts. First is the access to mineral resources: the Arctic already produces about 10% of the world’s oil and 25% of its natural gas. 80% of the oil produced and virtually all the natural gas comes from Russian territory or the EEZ. According to a United States Geological Survey, as much as 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of undiscovered oil could be found in the Arctic, primarily in offshore areas under less than 500 metres of water. The major part of this resource lies in the Russian Continental Shelf. Exploitation is costly and difficult due to permafrost and the presence of sea ice; melting of the ice could make this accessible. The Arctic is also estimated to hold abundant deposits of coal, nickel, copper, gold, uranium, tungsten and diamonds. Again, the biggest beneficiary will be Russia, provided it can gain or develop the technology to extract these resources at an economically viable price.
The second effect is the possible opening up of transportation routes, which would have profound impact on trade, sharply cutting distances from China, Japan, South Korea and other emerging Asian economies to European as well as North American ports. The constraint lies in the fact that icebreaking resources and safety services would have to depend on Russia, currently at loggerheads with the West over Ukraine.
Neither of these impacts India in any significant manner. Additional mineral and energy discoveries will belong to and enrich one of the eight Arctic Council member states on whose territory they are found. India can at best offer investment and reports indicate OVL has had some discussion with ROSNEFT for a stake. Opening of trade routes does not affect India in any way, since the Arctic route would invariably turn out to be the longer route for Indian trade, irrespective of the destination. India’s interests in the Arctic, therefore, are limited to keeping abreast of world affairs and scientific research intended to enable understanding of climate change and weather. India maintains the Himadri research station at Spitsbergen in Norway to study genetics, glaciology, geology, atmospheric pollution and space phenomena, amongst other fields.
A commentary on what this development means for the USA and the Arctic region has been published by the Brookings Institution and may be accessed from