By Andrew Quinn
NUUK, Greenland (Reuters) - Arctic nations agreed on Thursday to improve cooperation including on preventing oil spills as a thaw of ice and snow opens access to the remote region's rich mineral and petroleum resources.
The Arctic Council, comprising eight countries that surround the Arctic and representatives of indigenous Arctic peoples, signed a deal to split up search-and-rescue responsibilities as far as the North Pole in case of shipwrecks or plane crashes.
Officials said the pact, the first binding accord since the council was set up in 1996, could be a model for future deals on more contentious issues, including energy exploration in a region estimated to hold as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
"Arctic countries need enhanced cooperation on many future challenges in the Arctic, not least prevention, preparedness and response to oil spills," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said after the one-day meeting in Nuuk, Greenland.
Among oil majors eyeing the Arctic are Royal Dutch Shell Plc, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Norway's Statoil and Russia's state-controlled oil group Rosneft.
Environmental groups say Arctic nations should act faster to set up vital safeguards, ranging from shipping to fish stocks, as global warming causes a thaw that is threatening indigenous peoples' livelihoods and creatures such as polar bears.
"The lack of forceful action on oil spill prevention and integrated conservation planning is disheartening," said Lisa Speer, of the National Resources Defense Council in New York.
The ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, pledged to study ways to prevent and handle future oil spills.
"At a minimum what we can probably do is to aim at getting to a set of best practices that can be used in oil and gas exploration and production in the Arctic region," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
The Arctic Council, which comprises the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, has often been criticized as toothless. Denmark handles foreign affairs for Greenland.
Ministers said the search and rescue deal was a start.
"The Arctic Council is showing for the first time that it can agree a binding deal," Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told NRK public television. "This is very positive."
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill that followed the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig has raised fears for the Arctic, where officials say any similar accident could have catastrophic consequences due to the remote region's brutal climate and lack of preparation.
Clinton said there was no doubt that climate change was occurring and that humankind was to blame.
"The challenges in the region are not just environmental," she said. "We know that the decisions we make now are going to have long lasting ramifications."
Among other steps, the council urged the United Nations to work on a new "polar code" for ship designs in the Arctic and agreed to set up a permanent council secretariat in Tromsoe, Norway.
It also urged new steps to control short-lived pollutants such as soot and methane, which have a particularly strong impact on the Arctic.
Clinton and her Arctic colleagues got a personal view of climate change, taking a boat tour on a pristine Greenlandic fjord dotted with blue icebergs.
Puttering in a small touring boat shadowed by vessels carrying journalists and security, the foreign ministers stopped to view a threatened glacier -- a sign of retreating ice.
"I can see the changes, I don't need to measure them," said boat captain Henrik Hansen, who said rising temperatures were most noticeable in winter but now clear year-round.
Last week, an international study projected world sea levels would rise by between 3 and 5 feet by 2100 -- more than previously thought -- partly because of accelerating melt of Greenland and other Arctic ice.
(Writing by Andrew Quinn and Alister Doyle in Oslo; editing by Janet Lawrence and Alison Williams)