Arctic Yearbook 2014 - Page 382

382 Arctic Yearbook 2014 The second dimension is one that the UK has less cause to boast of: a prominent and sometimes leading role in raiding the High North’s natural resources. In the early 17th century, British whalers were among those heading the race to hunt bowheads around Spitsbergen (Svalbard) – an archipelago that King James I for a while claimed as British territory. When the industry’s focus shifted to Greenland and points West, UK-based vessels and companies again took a large part, alongside the Dutch and others, in whaling so intensive that it almost exterminated several species. The last British whalers left the area just before the First World War. More constant and still continuing has been the interest of the British fishing industry – particularly fishermen from England’s East coast, Scotland and the Northern isles – in the cod, herring and other marine riches of High Northern seas. In the 15th century, English and German ships fought over the Icelandic cod harvest; the 20th century saw three UK-Iceland Cod Wars, and in 2013 a new dispute began with Scotland and Iceland (among others) on opposite sides, over quotas for an apparently Northward-migrating mackerel stock. A further ‘dark side’ of the British relationship with High Northern resources, at least in Nordic eyes, is the release of radioactive contaminants (principally technetium) from the Sellafield nuclear reactor on the Cumbrian coast, the results of which have been traced from the Irish Sea as far as the Barents Sea. This has long caused concern notably in North-West Norway and led to official protests (right up to the 2000s) from several Nordic ministers.15 In the latest surge of interest in exploiting new oil and gas fields exposed by melting ice, British firms have perhaps not had the highest profiles but are determined not to be excluded. The British flagship company BP has been dogged by a dispute with its Russian partner Rosneft over ownership of the subsidiary TNK-BP; but when Rosneft finally purchased the latter in March 2013, it offered BP a fresh chance of cooperation on other Arctic projects. Meanwhile, BP’s Canadian subsidiary does co-own licences for offshore exploration in the Beaufort Sea and Eastern Canada, as well as shale oil/gas extraction on land. In July 2013 three out of six of the UK’s main energy companies – Centrica, E.ON and RWE – were reported to have secured licences for offshore exploration fields including some considered sensitive by Norwegian environmental agencies.16 Headlines of this kind help to explain why British companies have been among the targets of Greenpeace warnings about Arctic pollution, and why some British MPs (see below) have suspected excessive commercial influence behind the UK’s Arctic policymaking. Third and not least is the military role that the UK has played in the Arctic, both for its own direct defence and as a member of Western alliances. The icy seas saw acute naval competition in both World Wars as Germany sought to block Atlantic supply and reinforcement routes, and British troops occupied Iceland from 1940-41 and the Faroe Islands from 1940-1945 to preempt German control. As the Second World War ended, British diplomacy smoothed the path of Norway, Iceland and Denmark into the new NATO alliance, and the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap became a strategic focal point as the route that any major Soviet naval break-out would have to take. While British nuclear, naval and naval-air assets were the most obviously relevant to countering this danger, from 1960 the UK also made an essential contribution to the ACE Mobile Force (Land) tasked to bring rapid reinforcement to NATO’s Northern flank. British troops regularly carried out cold-weather exercises in Norway in that context, and continue to exercise there and in Canada despite the AMF(L)’s disbandment. Throughout such changes, Britain has maintained its general commitment to North European defence, as shown Bailes