* Evidence mounts of accelerating climate change
* Oil, shipping, fisheries eye new opportunities
* Nations boost cooperation to face shared risks
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, May 10 Leaders of Arctic nations
gather in Greenland this week to chart future cooperation as
global warming sets off a race for oil, mineral, fishing and
shipping opportunities in the world's fragile final frontier.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join foreign
ministers from seven other Arctic states in Greenland's tiny
capital of Nuuk -- population 15,000 -- on Thursday for an
Arctic Council meeting on the next steps for a region where
warming temperatures are creating huge new challenges and
unlocking untapped resources.
The council includes the United States, Canada, Russia,
Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, which handles
foreign affairs for Greenland, as well as groups representing
indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic most directly affected as
ice and snow retreat.
"It's an important gathering, but also a symbol of some of
the big challenges that the Arctic faces," U.S. Deputy
Secretary of State James Steinberg told a Washington think-tank
audience on Monday, noting that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken
Salazar would accompany Clinton to Nuuk.
"There are very core interests that are at stake in the
Arctic, but it is an opportunity to find new patterns of
cooperation," he said.
Evidence is mounting of climatic transformation in the
Arctic, where temperatures are already at their highest levels
than at any time in the past 2,000 years and are rising much
faster than elsewhere in the world [ID:nLDE7421AX].
Oil companies are alert to the potential of the Arctic,
which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may hold 25 percent
of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves.
Among oil majors eyeing the Arctic are Royal Dutch Shell
Plc (RDSa.L), ConocoPhillips (COP.N), Exxon (XOM.N), Norway's
Statoil (STL.OL) and Russia's state-controlled oil group
Global shipping, too, is adapting to the new conditions.
Previously icebound routes such as the Northern Sea Route past
Russia and the Northwest Passage along Canada have become
increasingly navigable -- cutting transport time but raising
questions about how the region will be managed.
OFFSHORE OIL AND GAS
The council will discuss a plan to divide search-and-rescue
responsibility across the Arctic region, a step closely watched
by shipping lines and oil firms seeking to expand operations.
It will also debate guidelines for admitting observer
delegations to the council, which could see non-Arctic powers
such as China get a seat at the table, and may discuss where
the Arctic Council should base its secretariat.
U.S. officials say they are also pushing for a broader
initiative on oil and gas activity in the region, including how
to deal with potentially disastrous oil spills.
"I think that there will be explicit discussion in Nuuk
with the Arctic Council nations about how to take the next step
and cooperatively address some of the important offshore oil
and gas issues," Deputy U.S. Interior Secretary David Hayes
told a news briefing.
Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said the
council was moving to strengthen its governance role that could
allow it to take action on weighty issues.
"We all are realizing that human and commercial activity
are really going to significantly increase as polar ice
recedes. We don't have sufficient infrastructure to keep up
with this increasing activity," she said.
Environmental activists say the Arctic challenges require
much more aggressive action on everything from fishing quotas
to international standards for oil and gas development in a
pristine, delicate region.
"There's a short window of opportunity to get out in front
of it and protect important and vulnerable ecosystems before
industries get entrenched," said Lisa Speer, director of the
Natural Resources Defense Council's international oceans
program in New York.
The Arctic Council is often criticized as being
ineffective, partly because it can only act unanimously.
Speer said piecemeal decisions on observer states and the
council secretariat threatened to obscure the broader threats
-- both natural and man-made -- to the Arctic's environment
that the Arctic Council needs to tackle quickly.
"These are bureaucratic questions. They are important but
it is sort of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," she
said. "We are looking at this huge crisis and the response is a
lot of inside baseball."
(Additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Oslo; editing by