Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation Maxime Verhagen told an international energy conference in Norway Monday the huge oil and gas reserves of the arctic hold much potential for supplying the world's growing energy needs.
But, he warned, the effect on the region's vulnerable environment of exploiting those resources is "difficult to predict at this time," and therefore, "binding international rules to prevent environmental damage" are needed.
Verhagen said trusting energy companies and competing national governments to police themselves in the arctic isn't sufficient.
"We should not overestimate the energy industry's capacity for self-regulation in the arctic," Verhagen said at the Offshore Northern Seas exhibition in Stavanger, Norway. "Because of the diverging geopolitical and commercial interests, we need new international rules."
Because demand for energy is continuing to grow and the fact that most of the oil and natural gas reserves are within the countries bordering the North Pole, the Netherlands believes exploitation in the North Pole region is "merely a question of time," Verhagen said.
"The challenge we face is not whether we should permit energy exploitation but how to do it responsibly," he said, adding the Netherlands and Norway would "take the lead in developing safer, cleaner technologies for exploiting oil and gas."
Norway, the host for Offshore Northern Seas event, is one of the countries taking part in the arctic "oil party," with analysts predicting a $12 billion jump in economic activity in the country generated by the focus on resources in the North, Norwegian and Barents seas.
But the boom is also producing concerns about the environment in the region, which is unified ecologically but not politically.
Greenpeace protesters brought attention to the issue by staging a pair of protests aimed at halting drilling in the region. Activists chained themselves in protest to a Russian ship carrying workers to an Arctic Ocean oil drilling rig Monday, the group's Web site said.
The 14 demonstrators, including Kumi Naidoo, the environmental group's global executive director, approached the ship Anna Akhmatova in inflatable boats and chained themselves to the ship's anchor, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported Monday.
In an action Aug. 24, six activists scaled the drilling rig and hung suspended for 15 hours, holding a banner reading "Save the Arctic," the news agency said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meeting in June with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, said the arctic needs "rules of the road" as commercial and national interests flood into the region.
"We believe strongly that it's important for the five principal arctic nations, of which we are, too, to begin working together to make plans for what will most certainly become greater ocean travel, greater exploration, therefore greater pollution, greater impact of human beings," Clinton said.
She said a start was made last year at the eight-nation Arctic Council when members agreed on a search and rescue protocol -- the first for the arctic.
"We're working on an oil spill protocol and others to come," she added.