Environmental Audit Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 333

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Environmental Audit Committee

on Tuesday 9 July 2013

Members present:

Joan Walley (Chair)

Peter Aldous

Neil Carmichael

Martin Caton

Caroline Lucas

Dr Matthew Offord

Dr Alan Whitehead


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Mark Simmonds MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gave evidence, and Jane Rumble, Head of the Polar Regions Department, FCO, was in attendance.

Q33 Chair: Minister, we are very grateful to you and your colleague for coming along to our session this afternoon. This is very much a followup session to our inquiry on the Arctic, and I think it might be helpful to set out that we will be very grateful to you for coming not just to this particular session, but also to a following session where you will be joined by your colleague at the same time. We aim to finish at 2.50 pm to move on to the next session.

We feel that we have put a lot of effort into the report on the Arctic and it perhaps would not be exaggerated to say that we were slightly disappointed by the Government’s response. We didn’t quite feel that it really matched the vision that we had set out in our recommendations from the Committee. I just wondered if at the very outset you could give us some indication as to whether you secretly shared that vision that we had, or whether or not you were being very, if you like, concerned about diplomacy, and perhaps looking over your shoulder a little bit more to make sure that you were seen to be doing the right thing rather than actually doing the right thing. I just wondered if you could comment on that.

Mark Simmonds: Firstly, could I thank the Committee for taking such a serious and detailed interest in the important issues that impact and affect the Arctic? I just wanted to reiterate at the beginning in response to your opening question that we are, in the Government, absolutely committed to playing a constructive role in the Arctic. We very strongly support the view of the importance of science-that was highlighted in the report your Committee put together-and the UK’s contribution to the Arctic. If I may say so, I am slightly disappointed about your reflections on the Government’s response; I can assure you that we read the report in great detail, we considered it extremely thoroughly and comprehensively, and we reflected very carefully on the suggestions and recommendations that you had made. I hope that came over in the response. I am sure we will get into some of the detail of this in a moment, but of course I accept there are some differences of opinion in terms of what needs to be done to protect the environment in the Arctic, but I also think I need to make the point right up front that-I know this is an obvious point but I think it needs to be made because it will frame the context of everything we discuss this afternoon-the United Kingdom is not an Arctic state; we are an observer. Observer status does not even mean participation at the main Arctic Council, it means what it says-observer. There are close participations in the working groups, but I think that, particularly through the scientific community and other ways that we have very positively engaged with the Arctic Council, we do have influence. I will say once again that we did look at the report very thoroughly, very carefully and if there are certain aspects out of the Government response to the report-not in terms of the content but in terms of the fact that you feel we have not responded comprehensively enough-then I would be happy to look at that again.

Q34 Chair: That is helpful. Just for the record, are there any specific sensitivities diplomatic-wise that you think would have perhaps influenced the way in which you perceived our report and the way in which you responded to it?

Mark Simmonds: No, I don’t think so. We have very strong bilateral relationships with all of the littoral states, as well as the broader states that are members of the Arctic Council, and we have a positive but candid relationship with all of them, so I don’t think that is a factor here at all.

Q35 Chair: As far as I am aware, our report was actually presented to the Arctic Council; could you just give us a flavour of their response or are there any particular recommendations in our report that were taken seriously and taken up by the Arctic Council? Any feedback whatsoever.

Mark Simmonds: I think the feedback was both to the original report and to the Government’s response to the report. On both those fronts there was a recognition and an understanding of the importance of Arctic issues to the United Kingdom and to the UK Parliament. I also have to say that there was a positive response to the Government’s response to the report, in terms of striking the balance between wanting to ensure the importance of the environment and environmental sustainability in the Arctic, but not wanting to, shall we say, interfere from the outside in what are inevitably sovereign states and sovereign state issues.

Q36 Chair: I suspect that is a theme that is going to come up this afternoon. Just finally, the European Union, looking at its approach to the Arctic, can you tell us anything about how that is developing?

Mark Simmonds: The European Union, as you will be aware, has applied-and it has been agreed-to receive observer status. Our view is that we are supportive of the EU having observer status, we don’t think it will diminish our impact or influence in the Arctic Council, but of course there are still ongoing issues. The EU and the Canadians are still trying to reach an accommodation agreement on, for example, some of the products from the Inuit people in the northern part of Canada, and whether that should have access to the EU. Even though those negotiations are still going on, the EU will still be allowed to have observer status. I think that generally, in terms of the priorities that were set out by the EU, they fit comfortably alongside the UK Government’s priorities as well-protection of the environment and ensuring that any commercial activity that takes place there is very thoroughly and comprehensively regulated.

Q37 Chair: So would you say that the EU, in developing its approach, is taking the lead from you, or are you comfortable with the direction it is going in anyway?

Mark Simmonds: The UK is certainly participating fully in trying to make sure that the EU direction of travel fits comfortably with our UK policy as well. I certainly don’t necessarily think that the EU would always listen solely to the United Kingdom.

Q38 Caroline Lucas: In your response you make it clear that the Government foresees a future for Arctic oil and gas exploration, and I wanted to ask you, in particular, how that is reconciled with the International Energy Agency’s conclusion that essentially no more than a third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be burned if we are to keep below two degrees global warming. The point being that, if we can only burn about a third of what we already know is there, then, in a sense, what is the justification for trying to find more?

Mark Simmonds: The Government’s response to the Committee’s report did not state that to meet the IEA target the hydrocarbon needs to be extracted from the Arctic. What it does state though–in response to the Committee’s report and in the context of what the IEA said-is that to have a transition from a hydrocarbon-driven economy to one where it is driven, either purely or as a major contributory factor, by renewable energy, that would have to happen over a period of decades. The IEA report makes quite clear that even though there will be a drop in the amount of barrelage per day consumed between now and 2035, there would still have to be significant new oil reserves found to fuel the economic development and economic growth. Whether they come out of the Arctic or not will be a commercial decision, obviously within an environmentally responsible regulatory framework. If it is not commercial to take the oil and gas from the Arctic, then of course they will have to be found somewhere else. There is one other final point I’d like to make on this-extraction of oil and gas has taken place onshore within the Arctic Circle since the 1960s. There has already been significant exploration offshore within the Arctic Circle for some time as well, so this is not a new issue that is coming into the public domain. But where I am sure we would agree is that it is absolutely essential that the environmental and regulatory regimes are to the highest standard.

Q39 Caroline Lucas: Going back to the first part of the question, I think the issue is not whether or not we will need some more coal and gas as a transition fuel to get towards renewables, but whether or not we actually need to be investigating to find new reserves. That is the issue that the IEA raises, saying that is not compatible with two degrees. I would also be interested to know if you were aware of the Carbon Tracker report that uses slightly different figures and comes up with an estimate saying that we can only burn one fifth, just 20% of proven reserves, if we are to stay below the two degrees warming.

Mark Simmonds: My recollection of the IEA report was that they made an assessment on a 50% probability of hitting the two degrees target. Within that context, the drop in barrelage on a daily consumption basis will fall between now and 2035; I think it is from 87.4 million barrels per day to 79.6 million barrels per day. Within that context a new 40 million barrels per day needs to be found. Of course whether that comes from the Arctic or from the other reserves that are being found, be it in Africa, or in the Middle East-in Iraq particularly-where there is potential for significant hydrocarbon growth, then that is a commercial decision that is made.

Q40 Caroline Lucas: It is more than that. We can have different interpretations of what the IEA says, but the essential point is that more and more commentators are saying that we can only exploit between one third and one fifth of known reserves. In the Arctic we are exploring to see what reserves there are; we are talking about known reserves, and that if we are to stay below two degrees warming we cannot burn more than that. That is pretty much an absolute if we are serious about the science of climate change. We can talk about the percentages and whether or not a 50:50 risk of staying below two degrees is enough, but that is the framework that I am trying to push you on.

Mark Simmonds: You and I have had this conversation before on other panels, and we are not going to agree, because I don’t think it is a practicable way forward to try to structure a multinational limit on hydrocarbon extraction. I think we are quite rightly focused on emissions and trying to limit the emissions to meet the two degrees target, and I don’t think they are necessarily mutually-

Q41 Caroline Lucas: Let me just clarify what you are saying. Are you saying that you do not think there is a limit to the number of fossil fuels we can exploit and still remain within the two degrees target? You think we can still remain below two degrees and exploit whatever hydrocarbons we find?

Mark Simmonds: To meet the two degrees target the focus has to be on the emissions, and there are other factors that are clearly going to potentially have a more significant impact on either meeting or not meeting the target than the quantity of hydrocarbons that is extracted. For example, permafrost, which is, again, something that is particularly relevant to parts of the Arctic. I think the other factor in all this-

Q42 Caroline Lucas: Can I just stop you there? That seems an extraordinary thing to say. Obviously the role of permafrost is going to become much more serious the warmer the world becomes, the warmer the planet becomes. The warmer the planet becomes, the more fossil fuels we burn. So to think that the total quantity of fossil fuels that we are burning is not the principal driver of emissions one way or another, whether directly or indirectly, seems to me to be strange.

Mark Simmonds: Going back to your point, I don’t see that a moratorium in terms of the Arctic or a moratorium in terms of limiting the number of hydrocarbons and extraction is necessarily going to reduce overall gas emissions. I think that where you have to be careful with this is you have to strike a balance-as the Arctic States and the Arctic Council are doing, as we did in response to the Committee’s excellent report-between meeting the two degrees target and also allowing economic growth and socio-economic development to take place.

Q43 Caroline Lucas: That encapsulates exactly what is wrong with the Government’s approach, and indeed many other governments’ approaches. They talk about there being a balance, but what we are actually saying there is that there has to be a balance between whether or not we have a liveable planet into the future and whether or not we have economic growth. To think that those two things can be traded off against each other seems to me to be at the root of what is wrong with the Government’s approach on this. What the Carbon Tracker report is saying, as are many others, increasingly, is that there is an amount of emissions into the atmosphere beyond which, if we go that much further, no matter how much we might think it is important for growth-and we can have that discussion as to whether or not fossil fuels are so important for growth-we really increase the risks of catastrophic climate change. The whole frame of reference that you are using to say there is a balance seems to me to be wrong, because there are some absolutes here; would you not accept there are some absolutes?

Mark Simmonds: No, I don’t agree with that. I think it is perfectly possible-although I accept very challenging-to meet the two degrees target, and I certainly believe that there is a necessity to have a balance. One of the other areas that I have responsibility for is Africa, and the discovery of hydrocarbon reserves and gas reserves in Africa is creating a real opportunity for significant alleviation of poverty, which would probably have otherwise-

Caroline Lucas: Let’s not go down that route.

Mark Simmonds: That is quite an important-

Caroline Lucas: That is not relevant to what we are talking about-

Mark Simmonds: I know it is not relevant-

Q44 Caroline Lucas: We are short of time. I want to talk about the policy framework that the Government is developing on the Arctic. Will you be, in that policy framework, looking at assessing the compatibility of more Arctic exploitation and the two degrees limit? Will that form any part of your policy framework document?

Mark Simmonds: The policy framework document is to pull together all the different strands to ensure a successful future for the Arctic. It will be a summary of the policy framework that we have in place at the moment and it will also be very responsive to input from consultations that we are doing, from not just the scientific community but the NGO community and academia as well, and indeed this Committee. We are very interested to have the Committee’s input into what should and should not be in the framework. However we have to be careful in the sense of while we can have a framework, we can demonstrate the significance and importance we attach to these issues in the Arctic, we must not be seen to be trying to impose from the outside on sovereign countries what their priority should be, either within their national boundaries or within the framework of the Arctic States.

Caroline Lucas: I will take that as a no.

Q45 Caroline Lucas: Going on about the dangers of problems in terms of drilling in the Arctic, so moving away from climate change specifically and more to the fact that, for example, Shell has already suspended its drilling in the Arctic because its rigs have been damaged, and it also failed last year to obtain regulatory approval for a crucial piece of response equipment, what is your view of the safety of Shell’s Arctic drilling operations? Are you perfectly comfortable with them as they stand?

Mark Simmonds: It is not a matter for the UK Government; it is a matter for the US regulators and for Shell themselves. Of course, as you will be well aware, Shell have suspended their operations while they look more closely at some of the issues you have raised.

Q46 Caroline Lucas: So you don’t think this has anything to do with the UK Government? Shell’s safety or not has nothing to do with the UK Government?

Mark Simmonds: Shell’s safety in the particular area that you are talking about comes under the auspices of the US regulator.

Q47 Caroline Lucas: But many people would still think that Britain has some responsibility for the operations of companies that have links to Britain in places like the Arctic.

Mark Simmonds: I can assure you that Shell, BP and other UK companies take extremely seriously the potential environmental impact and making sure that they do everything possible to mitigate any eventuality. So it is not a matter for the UK to regulate Shell’s operations in the Arctic Circle-

Q48 Caroline Lucas: I am not suggesting regulating them, I am suggesting you might have a view about them. I wonder if you saw in today’s paper, for example, that, with Shell and BP and others having rigs in the North Sea, just in the last month alone there have been 55 incidents of leaks-even in the comparatively much safer waters of the North Sea. If there have been 55 leakages in one month in the North Sea, then why should we be confident that a safety record would be more robust in much harsher conditions in the Arctic?

Mark Simmonds: Certainly in the discussions I have had with those representing Arctic States, and indeed the conversations I have had with those in the hydrocarbons industry, they take the issues that you have raised extremely seriously and as a top priority in terms of their operations within the Arctic Circle and elsewhere. The Arctic States themselves have very high environmental and regulatory assessments and frameworks to make sure they limit as far as possible any potential damage to the environment, as well as putting in place potential mitigation. For example, the Arctic Council have recently come out with an agreement to put in place a certain mitigating framework in case any problems occurred on any offshore drilling that were to take place in the Arctic.

Q49 Caroline Lucas: My last question is whether Shell has sought any support or advice, or whether it has been given any, from the UK Government during the review of its operations by the US Department of Interior or the US Coastguard?

Mark Simmonds: Not that I am aware of, no.

Q50 Chair: Can I just check, because you have referred just now to discussions that you had had with the hydrocarbons industry about the various requirements, did any of those discussions look at the risks or possibilities of a British company being involved in some kind of pollution incident-just assessing the risks? Have those kinds of discussions taken place between you and British companies operating in that area?

Mark Simmonds: Yes, they have. They are very cognisant of the importance of making sure that they do everything possible to mitigate any potential environmental problems. It is part of the licensing process, so even before a license is granted to drill there is very significant work that is done beforehand for any preventative work.

Q51 Chair: Just to add to that, obviously the concern is that we would have liked Shell, at this stage, to come before the Committee to look in a bit more detail at some of these issues, but clearly because of the US Coastguard operations and investigations that is still not possible, although we hope that they will be coming later. You are saying categorically that discussions are ongoing between yourselves and Shell?

Mark Simmonds: No, I did not say that, that is not the question you asked me, Madam Chairman, if I may say so. You asked me whether I had discussions with UK hydrocarbons companies about the importance of the environmental issues within the Arctic, and yes, I have. I certainly have not had discussions with Shell specifically about their issues with the US regulator.

Chair: That is helpful, thank you.

Q52 Dr Whitehead: We recently had evidence from the team that was leading the satellite measurement on Arctic sea ice volume, and also from Professor Slingo from the Met Office, that envisaged an ice-free summer by about 2030 across the whole of the Arctic. What do you think that information, those predictions, might do as far as the Department’s policy framework document is concerned? Is the framework document predicated on that pace of melting or other factors?

Mark Simmonds: The framework document is a live document, so once it is produced it will not be cast in stone. It will be revised by the cross-departmental UK working group, which is led by the Foreign Office. As issues change, like the ones you have raised, of course the framework will change and develop alongside events as they happen. Certainly there are some very significant potential changes that have come out of potential complete ice melt; shipping is perhaps an obvious one, new fishing grounds being able to be accessed, perhaps even greater tourism than is currently able to take place, and indeed other extraction of raw minerals, all of which need to be properly regulated, particularly by the Arctic Council. It is a live document that is not fixed.

Q53 Dr Whitehead: I wanted to come to the question of the Arctic Council and perhaps then return briefly to some thoughts on shipping in particular. As you know, the Arctic Council has approved a number of new permanent observers. That, you might argue, clearly changes the balance of the Arctic Council. Has that changed the balance of what the UK is seeking to achieve?

Mark Simmonds: In terms of the new observers coming in?

Dr Whitehead: Firstly the new observers’ status on the Arctic Council, and secondly whether they have different objectives from, say, the UK, as far as the Arctic is concerned. Do their views conflicts with the UK’s general views, and has the UK entered into any dialogue with the new observers about its position on the Arctic?

Mark Simmonds: Yes, we have had dialogue with the new observers coming on to the Arctic Council, and obviously we will continue to do so. We don’t think it will have a negative impact on our influence; most of our influence is done through the working groups of the Arctic Council, much of which is driven by our very highly regarded scientific expertise. We certainly don’t see that diminishing. We are also very keen to engage with the new observers in terms of co-operating and co-ordinating further scientific research and making sure that we can, where relevant, provide additional support to the Arctic Council in their direction of travel. What I mean by that is that we obviously have quite significant impact in some of the other multilateral institutions-whether it be the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations-and we influence the Council on the convention, and on some of the other important biodiversity conventions, which could and should all have an impact in the Arctic. We are keen to continue to play our very positive, influential role through the normal structures of the Arctic Council.

Q54 Dr Whitehead: What is your approach to the Arctic Circle group that has recently been formed? Their first meeting is in Iceland shortly. It does not have the same status as the Arctic Council, obviously, but is a forum for discussion.

Mark Simmonds: It will be interesting to see how it develops. We think it is an interesting idea and we will be participating in the first meeting in Reykjavik coming up, but we do still see the Arctic Council as the main governing body of the Arctic.

Q55 Dr Whitehead: You have mentioned, in the context of retreating ice caps-I have to say I was slightly worried about where you were going with the answer-that there will clearly be changes that require substantial greater regulation and concern. I was, however, a little concerned with the rather, shall we say, upbeat view of the opportunities that a global ice melt would present when the FCO put evidence into our inquiry originally. What is your view of that in terms of the balance between those opportunities and the regulations it must follow?

Mark Simmonds: I think that inevitably, if the predictions are correct and the ice melts, there will be commercial opportunities. Now, whether that is for the United Kingdom or for others, that is clearly a matter for the Arctic States and the Arctic Council to decide. What I think our focus is on is making sure that the regulatory framework is in place to ensure the importance of environmental issues is taken fully into consideration and into account when the framework is constructed, to allow whatever is allowed in the future to take place.

The point I was trying to make in response to your initial question about the framework is that, clearly as the factors change, whether it be ice melting or others, the framework needs to develop alongside those changes. It is not a fixed document, it is a live document that could be reviewed on a regular basis. This cross-department working group meets every six months, so it has a regular opportunity to look at whether the framework encapsulates all the necessary structures to deliver what the UK wants to see happen in the Arctic.

Q56 Dr Whitehead: One particular context in which one might look at the opportunities versus regulations is the question of the increasing passage of ships-particularly long intercontinental freight services, potentially going across the north east passage-over the next few years, and the relation that has with the deposition of black carbon aerosols into the Arctic itself. I believe the IMO is undertaking some work into this with UK Government support. Where has that got to and what is the view of the UK Government about what that research might tell us about future policy on shipping?

Mark Simmonds: It is a very important issue that you have raised, Dr Whitehead, and the IMO-as you rightly said-put in place earlier this year a working group to look at this very issue and to do several things. Firstly to develop a technical definition of black carbon, which is lacking at the moment; secondly to consider measurement methods for black carbon; and thirdly to identify, collate and investigate possible control measures. Now, that working group will be meeting to assess the findings of those particular areas of focus in the spring next year, with a meeting, hopefully later on-before summer next year-to implement the recommendations. There are also meetings that are taking place in conjunction, in parallel, between representatives of the IMO and engine manufacturers to try to understand what might need to be done to stop black carbon, through engines, being emitted at all. Clearly, that would be the best outcome of this particular focus. But there is quite a serious question that relates to definition, and of course that will drive the discussions and, hopefully, the announcements and thereafter the implementation.

Q57 Dr Whitehead: Do you have any view on what position the UK Government might take, in terms of restriction of shipping across the Arctic as the melt takes place for that reason, and also for the considerations relating to the actual safety of vessels going across the Arctic? The IMO, for example, is undertaking polar code work, but at present there are no-as far as I understand-safety considerations on whether, for example, a single hull ship can go across the Arctic, and what sort of assistance points there are available should a vessel get into severe trouble within the territorial waters, which are a considerable feature of the Arctic. What is the British Government’s general view on those developments, and how that might affect what looks sometimes like the forward march of potentially very difficult, and possibly destructive, shipping arrangements across the Arctic?

Mark Simmonds: It is an issue we are engaged with internationally. It is something that we are concerned about, not just in terms of the single hull issue but of course the cargo of the particular vessels, whether it be heavy fuel or other vessels, and there needs to be a cohesive, comprehensive conclusion that is reached and not just from the UK but from particularly those Arctic States on the Arctic Council. There is work going on at the moment-I think it is through the IMO-to work out those particular challenges. You are right-linking back to your first question-if the ice were to melt then clearly it could become a very significant shipping route. There are also other concerns that I have, which are allied to the point that you have made-for example, about cruise ships. I think there is a question about cruise ships being up in the Arctic Circle and the potential response times from the authorities if something were to go wrong.

Q58 Martin Caton: In your response to one of Caroline Lucas’ questions, you mentioned the Arctic policy framework and said, I think, that it would essentially summarise existing UK policy. At the same time you suggested that you would welcome input from the EAC, which makes me think and hope that it could actually include some new policy positions. Can you tell us a little bit more about how this is being developed, what its aims are and who it is directed at?

Mark Simmonds: It is in response to the Committee’s report where we felt that in the report-of course, while we accept it, we do not necessarily agree the whole content-there needed to be a framework that pulled all the disparate stands together in one document. It is for the UK, and it is also for the international community to recognise that there is significant interest in the Arctic from not just the UK and Parliament but also from the broader NGO community as well. The reason why we have gone for a framework rather than a strategy, is that we would not want to be seen to be having an imposition from outside in other people’s sovereign territory.

I think it would cover the areas that were raised in the Committee’s report. It would also cover the other important areas of the relationship between the environment and potential commercial activity that were to take place. It would cover the aspects of some of the climate change issues we were talking about earlier. It would cover the issues of why the Arctic matters to the UK. It would cover issues surrounding the importance of respect-respect for the people who live in the Arctic, respect for the Arctic States, respect for the Arctic Council leadership. So we would emphasise the UK’s role, in various areas that are relevant to the Arctic: leadership on climate change legislation, international lobbying through our multilateral organisations, co-operation between ourselves, through bilateral relationships but also through the Arctic Council, as well as the importance of science, and the importance that the UK attaches to science in the Arctic, both through the funding that NERC gives to institutions, and the international co-operation that we have as well.

Q59 Martin Caton: We understand that you are not going out to formal consultation on this. Are you going to engage with stakeholders, the energy companies, the Arctic States, other interested parties, both within the UK and beyond?

Mark Simmonds: Yes, and we are doing so already and we certainly intend to continue with that consultation. But, as I said, the framework document when it comes out won’t be fixed. I certainly see it as a living document and, as either the ice melts or other aspects change and alter, or indeed as the evidence changes, then of course the document will be up for discussion.

Q60 Martin Caton: Who have you consulted so far?

Mark Simmonds: There have been consultations with academia, non-governmental organisations and others who potentially have an interest in the Arctic.

Q61 Martin Caton: We have the existing Arctic Network Group. What role would that have to play in producing this policy framework, and perhaps continual monitoring of how it is working?

Mark Simmonds: The Arctic Network Group is the group that is represented by all of the respective Government Departments who will meet-I think it is every six months-regularly, through all the Government Departments that have an interest, with an FCO lead, and that will continue. It is a very important cross-departmental working group that will ensure that the views across all Departments are taken into consideration.

Q62 Martin Caton: Is it meeting every six months at the moment?

Mark Simmonds: Yes, I think it is.

Q63 Chair: Can I just check that, in a way, what you are calling a framework to all intents and purposes could be very much based on what we call a strategy? In a way, it does seem quite pleasing that you have in fact perhaps taken on more of our recommendations than at first seemed the case, and that we do have a basis for ongoing discussion being taken forward.

Mark Simmonds: Yes, I think that is right, although we have to be careful with the language, which is why we call it a framework rather than a strategy. But certainly the embryonic-the birth of the idea of the framework-very much emanated from the Committee’s report.

Q64 Chair: I understood that in a speech to the recent Arctic Council Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Sweden, the Finnish Foreign Minister called for binding common standards to address the risks of Arctic oil drilling, and that he supported calls for the creation of a global sanctuary in the area of international waters beyond the Arctic States. I just wonder how the UK Government actually viewed those proposals of Mr Tuomioja and whether or not you intend to be engaging with him, or through the various mechanisms that you have just referred to, on looking at how we could get that greater degree of level of protection in the Arctic States?

Mark Simmonds: The first thing I would say is the environmental regulatory framework of the Arctic States is of a very high standard already. Secondly, the Arctic is not a homogenous area, so there needs to be a reflection in the regulatory structures in place to reflect that. It needs to reflect local conditions but, of course, we support the highest regulatory and safety standards in the Arctic for exploration and exploitation across all areas. I know, from the conversations that we have had before, that not just the Arctic States but also the oil companies share those objectives as well.

Chair: That is helpful.

Q65 Neil Carmichael: Can I just go back to the European Union, in respect of the arrival of China and India and so on into observer status, and probe this question about influence? Because I would have thought-and I have listened carefully to your answers-that Britain might be best placed to work through the European Union in connection with the Arctic Council. What is your thinking?

Mark Simmonds: I think there is a role for both. I think the UK has had a very positive role to play in its observer status in the Arctic Council. I think that should continue to be the case. I certainly think that, while of course we must co-operate where it is appropriate, we have specific and significant scientific expertise in this country-as you will very well be aware, Mr Carmichael, because of your expertise on the Antarctic-that we wish to continue to see to go through UK channels. That does not mean that there are not areas of mutual interest, which the UK can work with as a member of the European Union, particularly some of the collaboration supporting the indigenous people and, indeed, some of the additional research that the European Union can do, particularly as it relates to climate change.

Q66 Neil Carmichael: Yes, because, although the system of governance is completely different between the two Poles, the one thing we can learn from the Antarctic is that working together does produce useful results. Of course there are European countries on Antarctica that work together very successfully, and it does strike me that the example there is certainly-in political terms if not in the form of treaty terms and structure terms-one which we could emulate.

Mark Simmonds: Yes, you are right, there are significant differences. One of the purposes of the Antarctic Treaty enshrined in Article 4 is to get away from arguments about sovereignty. Certainly the Antarctic Treaty has worked extremely well since its inception, and the Arctic is of course different because in the Arctic there are sovereign states who have territorial jurisdictions over much of the Arctic. But I think the Arctic Council has worked well. I think that there are, clearly, significant challenges ahead, but it has worked well and I think we have played an important-albeit, observer-role in trying to ensure that we provide support and ideas, both through the working groups and through other structures that we have talked about earlier, to ensure there is maximum environmental protection in the Arctic Circle.

Q67 Chair: Mr Carmichael’s comments have prompted me think about a further issue, if I could just briefly raise it. I think, in terms of the Arctic Council, there is a willingness by the UK Government for NGOs to be part of the delegation there, and I just wonder, given the relationships that you seem to be developing in respect of the Arctic Council, whether or not it is your intention, Minister, to look to include NGOs more in the on-going work that is being taken forward under the framework that you are now referring to for the Arctic Council.

Mark Simmonds: I am always keen and pleased to hear from the NGO community, and certainly, I would be keen to hear about any aspect that they feel is not being thoroughly and comprehensively deliberated upon. But certainly, as the framework goes forward, then I do think there is a role for the NGO community and academia to play in infusing its ideas and thoughts as we develop the framework going forward.

Q68 Chair: Ultimately, on the same basis as with the Antarctic?

Mark Simmonds: Yes, although the Antarctic is different, and certainly it is-as Mr Carmichael said-an extremely challenging place to go to. Obviously parts of the Antarctic fall within the remit of Overseas Territories. It is extremely well regulated as well, but it is different again because there is no mineral extraction or hydrocarbon extractions allowed in the Antarctic, so it is a slightly different issue that we are discussing.

Chair: Thank you. I think we are against time at this stage. I would like to thank both yourself for your contribution to this part of our inquiry and also your colleague, Head of the Polar Regions Unit, whose contribution I am sure is making a huge difference in terms of ongoing policy. So thank you very much indeed, and we will wait now for the next session. Thank you.

Prepared 26th July 2013