On 12th June it was announced that the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic was formally appointed. The select committee is important because it differs from a standing committee in a sense that it can be established (opportunistically) to focus on topical issues such as the Arctic region. Under its chair, Lord Teverson the committee will, “…consider the opportunities and risks arising from increasing access to the Arctic region, and their implications for the UK. The issues to be explored will include the potential impact on shipping routes, energy resources, mineral extraction, the environment, international relations, security, tourism, fisheries and indigenous people”. The select committee will have cross-party membership and after taking evidence it is expected that a report will be released in March 2015, shortly before the expected general election in May next year.
While it is clearly too early to say much about the evidence sought and given to this new select committee, it is likely that the focus will be on climate change, ecology, economic opportunities including those within the energy sector, defence and security and the wider international geopolitics of the Arctic region, including the role of the UK as observer to the Arctic Council. And the establishment of this committee follows in the wake of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee‘s (EAC) ‘Protecting the Arctic’ reports. The latter resulted in the production of reports, which broadly concluded that the UK government’s promotion of key industrial sectors including the hydrocarbon industry sat uneasily with stated concerns to achieve climate change reductions. The UK government published a response to the findings of the committee.
More generally, the creation of the House of Lords select committee reminds us that UK government and indeed parliamentary interest in the Arctic has been growing in the last 5-10 years. MPs and Peers have asked questions of Ministers and debated the Arctic in both chambers. The House of Lords held Arctic debates in 2007 and 2010. The House of Lords debates were critical of the UK government for not possessing a more coherent policy let alone strategy. In December 2013, the House of Commons Defence Committee proposed further investigation into the ‘strategic importance of the Far North’.
The Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office produced in 2011 a policy statement called ‘The UK’s engagement in the Arctic’ and continues to co-ordinate a Cross Whitehall Arctic Group. The FCO also gave evidence to the EAC committee in 2012 which gave further details regarding UK interests in the Arctic. This in turn might be seen, in part, as a response from others including members of the House of Lords for further exemplification on this topic. While careful to avoid terms like ‘strategy’, the UK Policy Framework released in October 2013 was further evidence of this apparent desire to be more explicit about why the UK is interested in the Arctic region (and how and where). The where is important as it reminds us that UK Arctic interests are to be found in a wide variety of places from the boardrooms of energy corporations and City of London financial institutions to scientific stations, schools, public museums and environmental organizations.
The work and report of the House of Lords select committee on the Arctic will be worth following. It has been a busy time for those interested in the UK’s involvement and interests in both Polar Regions, as the recent debate over a new polar vessel might testify. At heart, especially in (the) Arctic context(s), is how the UK attempts to reconcile its strategic, environmental, economic and scientific interests in the region at a time when there is growing sensitivity amongst the eight Arctic states and indigenous peoples as to how others (such as near Arctic states such as the UK, the EU and beyond) are increasingly making their presence felt. Duncan Depledge (Royal Holloway University of London and RUSI) has written about UK Arctic assemblages precisely in an attempt to investigate further about how UK agencies and stakeholders enroll ‘the Arctic’ in particular projects. And there are multiple assemblages of the Arctic at play here.
Arguably, of course, this is not new as the Arctic region and its inhabitants have been involved in circumpolar and transnational exchanges, processes and projects for far longer. The UK is not alone in that sense. Perhaps what we are talking about here is further evidence of intensification of such interest in (and impact on) the Arctic region, and as the UK Parliament’s EAC’s proceedings and reports (2012-13) confirmed this is intrinsically contestable within UK constituencies and beyond.