The rapid melting of ice in the Artic has generated countless debates over global warming. But the erosion of Arctic ice has huge economic ramifications, not just environmental ones. An ice-free Arctic would make international shipping much faster, saving millions of dollars in transportation costs every year. Perhaps more importantly, the melting of ice would make oil and gas development of the Artic much more practical. The Artic is an attractive site for energy companies because it is estimated to hold huge stores of oil and gas; however, ice and terrain make development in the region difficult and expensive.
The economic implications of melting Artic ice have led to increased diplomatic activity over the region. The Arctic Council is a group of eight countries with ties to the region: the United States, Russia, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (the last of which represents Greenland). In addition to these permanent members, the Council has several observers and organizations affiliated with it, and key countries such as China and India have applications for observer status pending.
The long-term question facing the Council is whether its members can maintain a spirit of cooperation as the economic potential of the Artic looms larger. In addition to the increased number of countries and organizations wishing to become observers, there have been two recent signs of the greater diplomatic activity in the region. First, in May 2011, the Council agreed on a treaty requiring coordination of search and rescue efforts. Second, the United States sent Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, to the meeting rather than a more junior diplomat. In a nod to the growing potential for oil and gas production in the region, the Council plans to discuss oil spill prevention at its 2013 meeting.