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Arctic

Introduction

 

The Arctic, or rather Arctica, is in fact the area surrounding the North Pole, mainly occupied by the Arctic ice cap. However, it is wrong to think of the Arctic as Antarctica: the latter, diametrically opposed, is characterised by a defined continental mass, while the Arctic is conventionally delimited, having the scientific community set the limit in correspondence to the Arctic Circle (latitude 66 33 44 North). This border, therefore, includes portions of territories of several continents (America, Asia and Europe). The countries directly interested in the Arctic territories are: USA, Canada, Russia, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland).

 

The difference with Antarctica is not only “geographical”, but also -and above all- political: the entire Arctic area, in fact, belongs to the regime of international waters and natural resources are therefore considered a world heritage site. The states that adjoin the Arctic Ocean exercise their sovereignty over their territorial waters up to 24 miles, which also contains most of the natural resources known to date, which limits disputes over claims: there are currently two in force, one between the USA and Canada on the Beaufort Sea, the other between Canada and Denmark on Hans Island. The region is inhabited to a large extent by two main ethnic groups: the first is that of the Inuit, settled in North America and Siberia, the other- more numerous- is that of the Yupik, who live in Alaska.

Geo-strategic interests

The specific interest for the Arctic region has arisen in relatively recent times, following the famous melting of ice, which on the one hand has made it easier to access the enormous natural resources of the subsoil, and on the other hand has facilitated and increased the important trade routes that allow connections between Europe and Asia in a much faster and cheaper way than the traditional southern routes. Due to the particular political-legal situation described above, however, it is difficult to speak of an “Arctic economic system”, as if it were a single entity. Therefore, it is more appropriate to talk about economic opportunities for a single country as a result of its presence in the region: in this sense, it is interesting to see the economic implications of the Italian presence in the region, which is much stronger than one could think.

As a matter of fact, the great Italian enterprises, such as ENI and Fincantieri, have many interests in various fields: petrochemical, naval and technological.

Firstly, as previously said, the question of resources. With regard to oil, of which the Arctic deposits are rich, Italy is directly interested as a producer country: clearly its levels are far from those of other member countries of the Arctic Council (such as Norway, Russia and USA) around 40% of domestic demand. The Italian national energy company, ENI, has been active in this region for more than forty years, standing today as a fully mature player: an example is given to Goliath, oil field in the Barents Sea managed by ENI, as well as by the excellent relations with local authorities and communities and the attention paid to the environmental aspect of the places in which it operates (an essential aspect for such a delicate environment). Eni is actively involved in the various committees and task forces dealing with health, safety, environment and proper management of operational procedures, in order to protect the region: this work is mainly carried out in collaboration with the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP), which in 2012 launched the “Joint industry Project on Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology”.

Eni is not the only Italian active company in this sector: just think about Edison, the second oil and gas group in Italy, whose presence is now consolidated in Norway.

Another area of Italian excellence is that of Hitech, which in the Arctic region is used for the production of helicopters used for research and recovery operations (SAR, Search and Rescue). These helicopters are produced by the Anglo-Italian company Finmeccanica Helicopters (until 1 January 2016 called Augustawestland), and their main quality is the ability to operate in contexts that were made complex by climatic and atmospheric conditions.

Another famous Italian company that works in the area is Fincantieri: in 2012 it has acquired the Norwegian Vard, becoming therefore the fourth group of naval production in the world (the first three belong to the Republic of Korea). Fincantieri is specializing in the production of ships suitable to extreme circumstances, like those that operate in the Arctic region, and an example is the “Crown Prince Haakon”, that has been completed in 2017 and delivered to the Norwegian Polar Institute.

However, the Italian presence in the region is not entrusted only to large companies such as those mentioned above. Indeed, an important role is attributed to the small-medium enterprises, excellent product of the Italian economy, which often operate in clusters and industrial districts, so as to combine in the same subject both the economy of scale of large companies and the flexibility of small entrepreneurs: one of the main sectors in which they operate is precisely the energy one, for example in regards to the supply of oil and gas.

Future Scenarios

The “Polar Rush” is taking place under the radar. The interests at stake, especially in the long run, are very high. The countries that are moving most in this direction are Russia and China, which intend to secure a position of advantage both for the exploitation of the energy resources in the Arctic and for the control of the new trade routes that are opening up due to the ice melting process. Russia, as a member of the Arctic Council, has been increasingly attracted by the possible extension of the geopolitical space in its favour on our planet.

Furthermore, it is not a coincidence that it is increasing and strengthening relief bases, particularly in the vast Siberian peninsula of Yamal, for container ships which should supply trading partners such as Japan, thus saving at least 40% of the time compared to the now consolidated routes in the south. China, although not being part of the Arctic Council, has participated as external observer and has taken the decision to build an embassy in Reykjavik, the capital of the Icelandic Republic. The embassy is capable of hosting up to 500 people, which shows that China’s political goals are growing in this area.

Is it possible to predict a full militarisation of the Arctic region in the near future?

Certainly, those who are investing in this are today, will have countless geostrategic and economic advantages in the next 10-15 years. This is a policy that will not immediately show results, but it will in the medium to long term. Therefore, it is not surprising that Greenland is beginning to make increasingly frequent demands for independence from Denmark, understanding that the progressive melting of glaciers will facilitate mining activities. However, the United States is still on the side-lines and apparently not interested in the Arctic, despite being part of the Arctic Council as a founding member since 1991. Probably not for long, if we consider the hegemonic ambitions on the region by Putin’s Russia.

Europe, for its part, cannot afford to lag behind in an area of such great economic and strategic potential. A nation that has shown a keen interest in the Arctic regions’ political developments is Italy: our country was in fact appointed in 2013 as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. This is an important recognition for Italy, in the light of the great Italian commitment in the region both in the scientific field- it should be kept in mind the construction of observational platforms such as the “Climate Change Tower” in Ny Alesund in the Norwegian islands Svalbard- both in the economic field thanks to Eni’s investments in mining programs in Russia and Norway.

Since a few months Eni has started the activities of the floating platform “Goliat” off the coast of Norway, which is able to extract up to 100 thousand barrels a day, proving to be one of the leaders in the energy sector of that area. Giants such as Eni and Fincantieri are also spending on improving safety conditions in maritime transport (Oilspill) and on reducing environmental impact in a particularly fragile ecosystem due to global warming.

This set of things is nothing more than the basis on which to build an important and fruitful collaboration with the Arctic countries. Conducting and creating collaboration and friendships groups with the Icelandic and Norwegian parliaments is a winning strategy if you have the concrete will to pursue a common policy in the Arctic.

Even today, relations between Italy and the Arctic are intense, if only because of the fact that a significant Italian community lives in the region, a presence that is expressed in important artistic and cultural roles of our fellow citizens.

Members of the Arctic Council include Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. To these States it is necessary to add the permanent observer members, including Italy along with China, South Korea, Japan and India.

For obvious reasons, our country, as well as the whole of Europe, must pay attention to the issue of the Arctic’s militarization, carried out silently but inexorably in a particular way by the Russian Federation, scenario that can change the geopolitical balance and international security. As a matter of fact, Russia has sovereignty over most of the lands included in the Arctic region, so much so as to guarantee it a much greater presence in the Arctic Ocean that its two main competitors, namely Canada and – above all- the United States: this allows it to control the routes and, consequently, a comparative advantage in terms of exploitation of natural resources.

Up until now, however, the regional conflict had remained of low intensity, the phenomenon of the ice melting, as previously mentioned, can draw new scenarios, opening up to unexplored possibilities. It is no coincidence that China has opened its largest embassy (it can accommodate up to 500 diplomats) right in Reykjavik.

An interesting theme from this point of view may be the political will of Greenland to separate from the Kingdom of Denmark, on which it currently depends (together with the Far Øer islands): this would take away from Europe sovereignty over a very large (and very rich) portion of the Arctic territory.

The international community has to face several challenges in order to prevent the delicate balance of the Arctic from being disrupted.

 

Environment protection

First of all, the environmental one, on the one hand to preserve the region, whose biodiversity is distinguished by its delicacy, and on the other hand to safeguard the entire planet, due to the high influence that the Arctic exerts on global temperature.

From this point of view, the spread and consolidation of the practice of using liquefied natural gas as fuel in the northern seas has allowed a reduced impact on the environment: this progress must be consolidated, for example by implementing the presence of refueling stations. A similar and complementary practice, in which Italy is at the forefront of research, is that of compressed natural gas.

 

Scientific research

The Arctic is fundamental for the scientific community: for example, this area allows for easier collection of astronomical data than other parts of the world, which is relevant for the satellite survey; or again, the topic of volcanology is important, which among other things directly connects Iceland and Italy due to their nature as the only European countries with active volcanoes.

The CNR (National Research Council) manages our scientific bases both in the Arctic and in the Antarctic; The Airship Italia base is located in Ny-Ålesund, in the Svalbard Islands, where research in marine biology and arctic geology is conducted. Moreover, in Ny-Ålesund there is the Amundsen-Nobile Climate Change Tower, which has been studying the atmosphere and the impact of solar radiation on the ground since 2009.

Many scientific institutions are involved in the Arctic region. ENEA (National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development), which participates in the Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change (NDACC); the ASI (Italian Space Agency), which manages Cosmo Skymed, an ambitious Earth satellite observation program; the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, which is conducting research on the evolution of glaciers in Greenland and on the variation of the geomagnetic field in the Barents Sea; the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics – based in Trieste – based in the Svalbard region with the Experta ship.

 

Intergovernmental cooperation

The opportunities for collaboration are diverse. One of these is the Central European Initiative, a regional cooperation forum based in Trieste and which includes members from the Baltic region and the Euro-Arctic Council. The Initiative has three areas of cooperation: political, economic and social. In conclusion, the legal issue is essential to allow a peaceful and effective management of the opportunities provided by the Arctic region. Respect for international law, and specifically of maritime law and environmental protection conventions, is essential. To this end, the effort of the Arctic Council, which has promoted the drafting of various international treaties and conventions on the subject, should be highlighted.