Protecting the Arctic

Supplementary written evidence submitted by Henry Bellingham MP

Minister for Africa, the UN, Overseas Territories and the Caribbean, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Thank you again for the opportunity to put forward the Government’s views on the Arctic. During my oral evidence session on 5 July I promised to write with clarification on four points. I have now had the opportunity to seek advice from the relevant Departments responsible for these matters, namely the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport. I answer each in turn below.

· Would the UK Government support the principle that oil companies should have an unlimited financial liability from oil spills in the Arctic region?

Regulation concerning liability for oil spills in the Arctic is primarily a matter for the sovereign states who have jurisdiction in the Arctic region. However, within our regulatory regime for the UK Continental Shelf, oil producers have joint and several unlimited liability for oil spills.

· Are there any international treaties, agreements or arrangements that the UK Government could ensure British oil companies join or sign-up to, to demonstrate that the highest standards are adopted by those companies when operating in the Arctic?

We have not been able to identify any additional international treaties, agreements or arrangements that British oil companies should sign up to. However, the Arctic Council has developed a set of Arctic Offshore Oil and Gas Guidelines. Those Guidelines are currently voluntary in nature but the UK would certainly encourage UK companies to apply those Guidelines when operating in the Arctic. It should also be noted that the sovereign Arctic states have their own offshore operating standards which reflect the highest industry standards and will be enforceable territorially.

· To what extent have the medium to long-term defence commitments of the UK to the Arctic been considered as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review and recent announcements regarding the future structure of the British Army?

The Ministry of Defence have asked me to clarify the issue of a Ministry of Defence Arctic Strategy raised by Dr Whitehead. Although the Ministry of Defence considered the Polar Regions during the last Strategic Defence and Security Review it has not developed a standalone Arctic Strategy. Rather, the Ministry of Defence has been guided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) regarding engagement in the region. Notwithstanding this, the Ministry of Defence continues to review its engagement in the High North in support of national security interests. Indeed, in March this year a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Norwegian and UK Ministries of Defence to foster greater cooperation. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defence is engaged in the Northern Group of Nations and has established new regional cooperation with all Arctic nations through the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable.

During the evidence session, you stated that you found it odd that there had not been a detailed look at the potential longer-term requirement for strategic commitments in the region, and that the Ministry of Defence and FCO would need to make this a focus of attention. As part of the Ministry of Defence's preparations for the next Strategic Defence and Security Review it is undertaking a number of key thematic and geographic studies. The studies are not conducted in isolation; rather they are inclusive of relevant government departments as well as industry and academia. The forthcoming study into Polar Regions will commence in November of this year and report to the Ministry of Defence's Defence Strategy Group (co-chaired by the Permanent Undersecretary of State and the Chief of Defence Staff) in March 2013. It will not be a strategy as such, but will provide insight into the evolving regional context out to 2030, indentifying our national interests and outlining policy and capability choices for Defence in the future. The FCO will be closely involved in this process.

Finally, the structural changes to the British Army announced on 5 July are in line with the policy laid out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and will have no impact on the Ministry of Defence’s engagement in the Arctic region.

· By what date would the UK Government like to see the ‘Polar Code’ agreed and in place, and what actions is the Government contemplating to potentially secure an earlier agreement with like-minded countries if the IMO process is delayed?

As I mentioned in my oral evidence to the Committee, the UK Government is keen to ensure that an effective and workable Polar Code comes into force as soon as is practicably possible. Realistically, the earliest the Code is likely to be agreed at the IMO is 2014, with a further eighteen months before it comes into force. These timescales reflect the nature of the processes of agreement at the IMO, whereby different technical committees need to scrutinise the proposals before they can be submitted and agreed by the overarching Maritime Safety Committee.

The IMO has an excellent track record of producing good, workable products through consensus. The IMO is the relevant forum for discussing issues around Polar shipping requirements and the only one capable of producing internationally recognised and enforceable regulations. It is our intention therefore to continue to work constructively within the IMO to ensure progress is maintained on the development of the Polar Code, through our representation at Committee meetings and in the margins of those meetings. As negotiations continue, one possible option that we may consider proposing or supporting is to agree those aspects or chapters of the Polar Code that are non-controversial to a quicker timeframe than the rest of the Code. It should also be noted that a number of the environmental issues identified as potential problems in the Polar Regions (such as garbage and air pollution) are already being addressed on a global level with significant revisions to the appropriate IMO instruments and will still enter into force even if there are delays with the Polar Code itself.

I hope this further clarification and the evidence I and officials provided will usefully contribute to your findings on this globally important region and I look forward with interest to reading the Committee’s report.

27 July 2012

Prepared 10th September 2012