Energy, Security, and the Arctic

Does Canada's Arctic strategy undermine cooperation with allies and adversaries there, ask Michael Howlett and Nigel Kinney.
By: /
July 9, 2014
Burnaby Mountain Chair in the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University

Following intense debate over Canada’s use of its own natural resources and the conduct of its mining companies abroad, the Canadian International Council is curating a project on natural resources over five weeks to examine Canada’s future policy environment for domestic resource extraction, energy security, and international regulatory standard-setting. The project will glean its insights from a variety of stakeholders from government, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations in order to present a number of perspectives to better explain the challenges that we face moving forward and to delve into some of the controversial aspects of international, national, and provincial politics.

Below is the eighth response from Professor Michael Howlett and Nigel Kinney of Simon Fraser University explain how Canada can ensure its energy independence and national security imperatives with its approach toward its national resources.

Energy independence is not an issue in Canada as the country has more than enough energy sources within its border for the foreseeable future and is, of course, one of the world’s leading energy exporters. The greater issue is national security, especially in the Arctic regions, which is affected by those same energy exports. Arctic security was never much an issue until warming temperatures of the past three decades resulted in the melting of glaciers and led to the discovery of resources as well as greater accessibility for shipping routes (the Northwest Passage). The fear of a ‘race for the (newly found) off-shore Arctic resources’ has only been amplified by the apparent militarization of the arctic. The nations with clear interests in the arctic are Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, and the United States but many others—including China—have also staked claims to specific areas or rights to explore and to extract minerals and other resources from minerals to methane. The buildup of respective militaries in the Arctic began in earnest in the mid-2000s when nearly all of the nations bordering the Arctic Ocean started to release defence policy statements regarding Arctic security. The current state of the arctic is an uneasy balance between conflict and cooperation.

The Harper government, unfortunately, has leaned on the ‘conflict’ side of this balance. The government came into power in 2006 running on a platform of rebuilding the strength of Canada’s military. In pursuit of a worthwhile target or excuse for such a build-up the government increased the intensity of the military buildup in the Arctic, continuing tensions with Denmark over several small and poorly-mapped islands shared by the two countries. In 2009, the government published its Northern Strategy calling for the construction of six to eight Arctic offshore vessels; expansion of the arctic Rangers programme; building a large Arctic-capable icebreaker; developing indigenous surveillance capabilities; creating a Northern Reserve Unit based in the Arctic; developing a deepwater resupply port in Nanisivik; and developing an Arctic training base in Resolute, Nunavut. Not all of these came to fruition, but the emphasis was clearly on conflict preparation rather than coordination with other arctic countries.

Subsequently, a greater worry for Canada than energy security, per se, is that these initiatives, including those described previously surrounding the tar sands and the Kyoto protocol have undermined efforts and better coordination and co-operation amongst both allies and adversaries who, failing to understand Canada’s domestic political imperatives and the governments’ continual efforts to satisfy its base in Alberta and among specific Canadian constituencies, remain befuddled by these efforts. As with Kyoto and energy independence, Canada must shift towards an Arctic security policy focusing upon international coordination as climate change creates a more accessible Arctic and exacerbates existing geopolitical disagreements.