A Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker during an Arctic exercise, in Allen Bay, Nunavut, August 25, 2010. Reuters / Chris Wattie

By Andrew Quinn; additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Oslo; editing by Laura MacInnis
10 May 2011

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leaders of Arctic nations gather in Greenland this week to chart future cooperation as global warming sets off a race for oil, mineral, fishing and shipping opportunities in the world's fragile final frontier.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join foreign ministers from seven other Arctic states in Greenland's tiny capital of Nuuk -- population 15,000 -- on Thursday for an Arctic Council meeting on the next steps for a region where warming temperatures are creating huge new challenges and unlocking untapped resources.

The council includes the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, which handles foreign affairs for Greenland, as well as groups representing indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic most directly affected as ice and snow retreat.

"It's an important gathering, but also a symbol of some of the big challenges that the Arctic faces," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told a Washington think-tank audience on Monday, noting that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would accompany Clinton to Nuuk.

"There are very core interests that are at stake in the Arctic, but it is an opportunity to find new patterns of cooperation," he said. …

Among oil majors eyeing the Arctic are Royal Dutch Shell Plc, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Norway's Statoil and Russia's state-controlled oil group Rosneft.

Global shipping, too, is adapting to the new conditions. Previously icebound routes such as the Northern Sea Route past Russia and the Northwest Passage along Canada have become increasingly navigable -- cutting transport time but raising questions about how the region will be managed. …

Environmental activists say the Arctic challenges require much more aggressive action on everything from fishing quotas to international standards for oil and gas development in a pristine, delicate region.

"There's a short window of opportunity to get out in front of it and protect important and vulnerable ecosystems before industries get entrenched," said Lisa Speer, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's international oceans program in New York.  …

"These are bureaucratic questions. They are important but it is sort of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," she said. "We are looking at this huge crisis and the response is a lot of inside baseball."

Arctic nations eye future of world's last frontier

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