President Obama and the leaders of the five Nordic nations declared on Friday that they have common interests in protecting the rapidly changing Arctic.
Their statement, issued at a White House meeting, says the Arctic is a "globally unique region" that is especially vulnerable to climate change but poised for new development that could have ripple effects. It is also home to indigenous peoples with important local knowledge and whose rights must be respected, the statement says.
"Continuing to keep the Arctic region a zone of peace and stability is at the heart of our efforts," the statement said.
The joint statement calls for the nations to forge ahead with efforts to slow climate change and protect the environment, including a shift away from fossil fuels, an area where Scandinavian countries are world leaders.
The nations also agreed in the statement to take a cautious approach to development.
"We will work towards the highest global standards, best international practice, and a precautionary approach, when considering new and existing commercial activities in the Arctic, including oil and gas operations," the statement said.
The statement pledges a smooth transition on the Arctic Council from current U.S. leadership to Finnish chairmanship in 2017 and Icelandic chairmanship two years after that.
In many ways, the U.S.-Nordics statement echoes the Arctic goals described in a joint U.S.-Canada statement issued in March when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Obama at the White House.
Among them, a White House fact sheet pointed out, the United States, Canada and five Nordic countries control half of the Arctic marine territory that is subject to national jurisdiction – and available to respective nations for economic development.
Though the statement made several references to marine safety, the comments made by Obama and the Nordic leaders did not mention anything specific about the use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters.
Several environmentalists and Arctic organizations have pushed for a ban on the use of heavy fuel oil by vessels and, potentially, land-based facilities in the far north. The new Polar Code, approved by the International Maritime Organization last year and set to go into effect at the start of 2017, bans heavy fuel oil for ships traveling in Antarctic waters but has no such ban for ships using Arctic waters.
The lack of a reference to an Arctic heavy-oil ban in Friday's statement was a disappointment, said Kevin Harun, Arctic program director for Pacific Environment. He noted that the Arctic Council has already identified a potential spill of heavy oil as the biggest threat to the marine environment. Ultimately, he said in an email, "the Arctic nations are going to have to deal with this enormous threat to Arctic communities and environment."
The meeting between Obama and the leaders of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland was not limited to Arctic issues. Much of the focus was on relations with the eighth Arctic nation, Russia, and treatment of refugees fleeing Mideast turmoil.