Canada and the US should be taking a more active role in the development of the Arctic, two of those countries’ most prominent think-tanks conclude in recent reports.

Despite the area increasingly becoming accessible for resource exploitation and as a transport corridor, both countries have considerable ground to gain in order to catch up to other Arctic powers, Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation writes in its May policy brief, issued last week.

“Canada and the United States, unfortunately, have not yet forcefully tackled Arctic maritime development, although it will be essential to the overall development of our Arctic regions,” the policy brief states.

The paper says making up ground on Russia and Scandinavia can be achieved through a co-ordinated approach at the federal level as well as bi-laterally with the US. With the US taking over as president of the Arctic Council, a regional intergovernmental group, from Canada next year, this was an opportune time for the two countries to ramp up Arctic collaboration.

“Co-operation with the United States on Arctic economic development should be a top priority in Canada’s bi-lateral relations and should be brought to a new and higher level, especially given recent Arctic policy ferment in the US administration and Alaska, and passing the Arctic Council torch to the United States in 2015.”

While the two countries have grounds for co-operating at the national level, Canada’s Arctic territories – Nunavut, Yukon and Northwest Territories – have similar development issues as Alaska, and would make co-operation at the state and provincial level worthwhile as well.

“There is rich potential for Canada-US co-operation in the Beaufort Sea,” the report finds.

Shipping, fishing, mining and oil drilling remain the classic areas for potential economic development. Drilling, and particularly offshore drilling, though, continues to worry many. The paper notes the threat of an oil spill remains a serious consideration, not least in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“Oil spill response capability in the Arctic Ocean is a significant challenge,” the report says, pointing out that Canadian federal oil spill response was lacking, and that the industry should not be left alone to deal with oil response.

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A similar message of urgent action was expressed this week by Charles K Ebbinger, the director of the energy security initiative of the Brookings Institution, a US think-tank.

In a comment to the r recommendations issued in May by the GAO, a federal government oversight organisation, Ebbinger wrote that strengthening Arctic offshore oil and gas governance should be at the top of the US agenda when it assumes the Arctic Council presidency.

In its report, the GAO called on the US to shore up its policy ahead if the 2015 handover. Ebbinger considered the concern – as well as the growing interest by the Obama administration – to be positive developments, but he criticised the GAO for lack of specific initiatives and the need to accelerate the pace of policy formulation. “The changing Arctic is outpacing the US government’s current policy,” he wrote.

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A changed US strategy, he recommended, should look at the Arctic from less of a military and geopolitical perspective and more in terms of environmental and climate threats.

The Brookings Institutions, in March issued its own policy brief in which it issued its own recommendation for US Arctic policy.

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