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Arctic Summit To Tackle Melting Glaciers


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar lead the U.S. delegation to Greenland for the Arctic Council Summit tomorrow for talks that could affect the price of gas and on efforts to stop global warming. Canada, Russia, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States will discuss proposals to accelerate exploration for oil and natural gas in Northern Waters and the implications of a new report that predicts that melting glaciers will raise sea level by more than five feet by the end of this century.

Darren Samuelsohn previewed the Arctic Council Summit for Politico and joins us now from Capitol Hill. Thanks very much for being with us today.


Mr. DARREN SAMUELSOHN (Politico Pro): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And what's the significance of this high-powered delegation, two cabinet officers?

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: It shows that the United States is taking this very seriously. The secretary of the state has never been to one of these Arctic Council meetings. They happen every two years on a rotating basis among the countries that are members of the Arctic Council. So it certainly shows that the Obama administration is, you know, very cognizant of the climate issue and how that's very much at play as U.N. climate talks are, you know, are kind of casting about and not doing so well right now, and also a number of other issues that -a melting North Pole polar ice cap, you know, brings up, from oil and gas development to safety up there.

CONAN: One of the studies that came out in advance of this summit suggested that warming - well, we're seeing it elsewhere on the planet - but it's two to three times faster in the Arctic regions.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Yeah, that's right. There was a report that came out last week that went much further than the United Nations' scientific panel. The last big report on this that came out in 2007 had projected only seven to 23 inches of a sea level rise by the end of this century, in 2100. But that report didn't take into account the idea that Greenland would be melting, that glaciers would be gone by that point. And with that sea level rise, five feet is much more dramatic and much more drastic. It puts a lot of low lying parts of the world in jeopardy, from London to Tampa to Bangladesh.


And so the reason it's - you know, so much a focus on the North Pole is because, you know, that's where a bunch of - you know, the sea ice in the summer has been disappearing. The Northwest Passage has been cleared and ships can travel between that. And you know, there's a whole cycle of - it's called negative feedback that basically one thing happens up there and that compounds and creates more bad things happening. And an example of that is the permafrost is melting. And when the permafrost melts, it releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Those are both greenhouse gases that make climate change even worse.

CONAN: And those are released into the atmosphere, but it's also clearing more ice, which makes it more possible to explore for more oil.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Exactly. Yes. It's kind of ironic how that works. So the, you know, the world's oil companies, the biggest ones, the ones that have the ability, the capability to go and explore up there are chomping at the bit. There's exploration happening off the coast of Greenland already. British Petroleum is partnering with the Russian government, looking to look at Russia's gigantic arctic coast. And on the north slope of Alaska, off the coast, Shell has been proceeding with permits and wants to explore for oil and gas up there.

So the amount of oil that's up there is tremendous. I think it's 90 billion barrels that the U.S. Geologic Survey has estimated is recoverable up there, and it's a couple of year old estimate, and there's probably a lot of places that they haven't looked yet. And that oil becomes more viable commercially and economically when oil prices are at about the $100 mark. And where have oil price has been here for the last couple of months now? It's been around 100 bucks. So it's certainly become a little bit more viable for them to be looking for oil up there.

CONAN: Yet we saw the kind of effort that went into - the effort(ph) to stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where there were, well, all kinds of assets available. What happens if that's in the Barents Sea?

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: That's the - one of the big questions that they're going to be talking about in Greenland here this week and over the course of the next two-year period, is what kind of coordination would happen if there was an oil spill in the Arctic where, you know, there is ice and it's moving and they're drilling not on big rigs but more likely they're drilling from vessels. So getting the cleanup infrastructure in place is very difficult in a barren landscape, where there's much less infrastructure. You don't have the you know, even what you had in southern Louisiana, that they could launch a cleanup, search and rescue operation. Up there the ability to do that is much more difficult, and that's what they're talking about here.

And each country has, you know, some resources that they could put into that, and so they hope (unintelligible) over the next two years to come up with some sort of an agreement, not necessarily a treaty per se, but some sort of agreement that the nine - sorry - the eight countries can work together in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic.

CONAN: We're talking with Darren Samuelsohn, energy and environment reporter for Politico Pro. He joined us from Capitol Hill to look ahead to the Arctic Council Summit.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Are the nations of the North - and you think particularly of Greenland - the global warming is changing life there rapidly. Are they interested in developing those oil resources too?

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: They are. I mean, the Danish government, you know, is the proprietor over Greenland. Greenland does have does have home rule, but yeah, the Greenland government has cleared the way for a Scottish company to explore for oil off the southwestern coast of the world's largest island. And you know, it's been met with protests. The likes of Greenpeace has been hounding the Scottish oil company as they've been trying to do that. But absolutely, Greenland has been interested, of course always a big, you know, oil developer as well, as is the United States and Canada.

CONAN: And as you look ahead, what kind of power does this Arctic Council have? Are they gonna be producing any agreements or treaties or looking into things or trying to accelerate the effort to combat global warming?

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Well, they don't have a lot of teeth. It's a body that's been around since 1996. They do provide, I guess, a forum, so to speak, for these nine countries that have these specific, you know, common threads to get together and talk. And they are producing an agreement, I should say, here this week that they've been working on for the last two years, and it's just s search and rescue agreement, sort of to get the coast guards of the countries to, you know, work together. As more fishermen go up there, as more cruise ships go up there, there was a - I think it was several hundred Canadian tourists were stranded up in the Arctic last summer after they got stuck in some ice.

So there's an effort right now to - and that's one of the deliverables that's going to come out of the Greenland meeting, is an agreement that the countries will be working together on search and rescue up in the Arctic. And then that's a legally binding agreement that the United States was going to implement through an executive order, so it's not going to be a treaty that the Senate would need to ratify, per se, but - so it gives an opportunity. And as you bring up global warming, I mean, the United Nations in that process hasn't been going so well when you have 190 countries trying to work together to reduce greenhouse gases.

A lot of what they're going to come out with here in the Arctic Council is focusing on some of the most potent greenhouse gases, and those would be your methanes, your ozone, your HFCs, the refrigerants that are used in air conditioners and refrigerators, and these are basically, they're going to be spelling out programs and policies that then countries can take and implement to try and reduce greenhouse gases, but they can't actually come up with the treaty themselves.

CONAN: And it's going to be interesting to watch. There are also - these eight countries' interests diverge. I think Russia might be more interested in developing its oil resources more quickly than perhaps some of the others.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: That's true. Yeah. Russia on the global stage is definitely angst - you know, is angling to get at its oil and gas. Like I said, it's teaming up BP in a partnership to use some of their resources to get at that oil. And, yeah, the Russians have been one of the countries in the push on climate change that have been a little bit more slow to implement some of the reductions. Of course the Russians were, I think, one of the last ones to - and push the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement, across the finish line.

And they did that primarily because of a lot of carbon credits that they were able to get their hands on because of the collapse of the Soviet Union from the end of the 1980s, '90s. So for the Russians, it's often been about the economics and - and again, that's what's going on here.

CONAN: Darren Samuelsohn, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

Mr. SAMUELSOHN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Darren Samuelsohn, energy and environment reporter for Politico Pro. He joined us by phone from Capitol Hill. The meeting in Greenland gets underway tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.