In addition to seeing Canada assume the chair of the Arctic Council for the next two years, the recent Arctic Council's Ministerial Meeting at Kiruna, Sweden, adopted an important legal text, the "Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic". This is the second major international agreement that has been developed under Arctic Council auspices, the first being the Search and Rescue Agreement concluded at Nuuk, Greenland, in 2011.

The Marine Oil Pollution Agreement, signed on May 15, 2013, aims to strengthen cooperation, coordination and mutual assistance on oil pollution preparedness and response among the eight Arctic Council Member States. It applies to defined waters in each of those States. In Canada's case, the Agreement applies to marine areas above 60 degrees North. Each State Party is required to maintain a national system for responding to oil pollution incidents, including a national contingency plan providing for organizational relationship of the various bodies involved (public or private), taking account of relevant laws and guidelines. The Parties must establish a minimum level of pre-positioned oil spill combating equipment; a program of exercises for oil pollution response organizations and the training or relevant personnel; plans and communications capabilities for responding to an oil pollution incident; and a mechanism or arrangement to coordinate the response. Each national response system must designate the competent national authority responsible for preparedness and response; a national 24-hour operation contact point responsible for receiving and transmitting oil pollution reports; and an authority entitled to act on behalf of the party to request assistance or decide to render it if requested.

There are provisions on notification to be given by Parties on receipt of information about oil pollution or possible oil pollution, including an assessment of the incident and its possible consequences, and action the Parties have taken or intend to take in response. Monitoring is required, in order to identify oil pollution incidents and facilitate efficient and timely response operations, and to minimize adverse environmental impacts. Parties are permitted to request assistance from one another to respond to such incidents and are required to cooperate in providing assistance (advice, technical support, equipment or personnel). The movement of ships, aircraft and other modes of transportation engaged in responding to oil pollution incidents or in transporting personnel, cargoes, materials and equipment required for that purpose, into, through and out of the territory of each Party, must be facilitated. The Agreement lays down principles dealing with the reimbursement of costs of assistance by State Parties that request such assistance and those who provide it on their own initiative. These principles are subject to any applicable international agreements and national law, especially on liability and compensation for oil pollution damage. Parties may also cooperate with non-Parties where doing so contributes to activities envisaged in the Agreement.

The Agreement also calls for Parties to cooperate and exchange information serving to improve the effectiveness of oil pollution preparedness and response operations and to make such information publicly available. Joint exercises and training are also encouraged. Operational Guidelines are to be developed on specific matters, to assist in implementing the Agreement, and the Parties are required to meet periodically to review issues related to its implementation.

This Agreement will hopefully serve to better manage commercial marine traffic and the response to a spill in the fragile environment. The Agreement's passage is timely: even in the few short months since its adoption, commercial navigation in the Arctic has made significant progress. This September, the "Yong Sheng" became the first Chinese commercial vessel to reach Europe via the Northern Sea Route. The trip, completed in 33 days, is a marked reduction over the 48 days the same journey would typically take via the Suez Canal. Given that estimates place savings by shipping through the Arctic at between $60-120 billion annually, there is good reason to suspect that Chinese and other exporters in Asia will be increasingly considering the Arctic sea routes in the coming years.

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