GIRDWOOD -- Representatives of the eight nations in the Arctic Council gathered Thursday for continued discussions on a petroleum spill preparation and response plan in northern waters and a spokesman for the meeting host said it couldn't come too soon.
Shipping in the Arctic Ocean is growing faster than anticipated, said Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, and last summer the Bering Strait saw eight cargos of gas condensate from northern Russia moving to markets in Asia.
Treadwell said the state is quite confident in the spill preparations Shell Oil has made for proposed exploratory petroleum drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer off Alaska's northern costs, but is not as confident about shipping by itinerant vessels.
"We feel a little bit naked about shipping, and I think this is a very important first step," he said.
U.S. Ambassador David Balton, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for oceans, environment and fisheries, is chairing the Alaska meeting. He said the plan is aimed at oil spills from any source -- shipping, drilling or holding facilities on shore. "One of the primary ideas is to commit the eight nations to work together to prepare for and respond to a spill," he said. "As a group, we are not as prepared as we should to be. At a minimum, we will have commitments built into this agreement to help each other out in the event of an incident."
Arctic Council members include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation and the United States.
Treadwell said the eight nations in 2009 completed a shipping assessment that identified needs. Spill response was one of the top three, along with a search-and-rescue agreement, signed last May, and a mandatory code to make ships safer, an issue now working its way through the International Maritime Organization.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Cari Thomas, who heads the U.S. delegation, said she anticipates the agreement will call for response systems among the eight Arctic nations, notification procedures and joint training and exercises.
Balton said the agreement may put a focus on gaps in response resources.
"One of the many reasons to have this agreement is to give each of the governments another tool to use in trying to secure greater resources for oil spill preparedness and response," Balton said. "The very fact of having an international agreement can spur further activity. Indeed, that's part of the hope."
The delegates Thursday were working on revisions to a draft submitted by the Norway, which along with Russia is probably farther along in dealing with the prospects of serious oil spills in the north, Balton said.
The countries hope to have an agreement signed by May 2013 but significant challenges remain, Balton said.
"How do you move resources and personnel across national borders most efficiently, given customs and other requirements? There are many issues. Where exactly will this agreement apply? How far south will it apply? How will it apply in areas beyond national jurisdiction? These are not easy questions to answer and we are working through them one by one."