Elizabeth A. Kirk & Raeanne G. Miller
The Arctic Ocean’s physical environments and ecosystems are some of the most fragile and least well understood on Earth. They are characterised by extreme light and dark cycles, shortened food chains, and slow ecosystem recovery from disturbance. The Arctic seabed also holds promise of lucrative oil and gas resources, whose future exploitation could have substantial environmental impacts. Arctic jurisdictions must weigh environmental conservation and global agreements to reduce carbon emissions against the social implications and potential economic gain of offshore oil and gas projects in the Arctic, and must do so in the face of substantial scientific uncertainty around the impacts of climate and environmental change in the Arctic. We know, however, that major projects such as oil and gas projects have the potential to lead to transboundary environmental harm. We have some understanding of how any pollution may be carried by sea ice or on the ocean currents which flow around the Arctic Ocean. Even so, we have little understanding of how such pollutants might affect the Arctic ecosystem. Substantial gaps remain in scientific understanding of Arctic ecosystem functioning, particularly as it changes rapidly with the advent of climate change. These gaps in scientific understanding raise legal questions about how, for example, the law’s obligation not to cause significant transboundary environmental harm applies in the Arctic. In particular one may ask what actions are required by a state to show that they have acted with due diligence. Is it sufficient, for example, to show that they have complied with existing international treaties?
This paper draws out key legal and scientific issues on which greater understanding is required. In essence it presents a roadmap for further research and negotiation.