U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council: The challenges ahead

This weekend the United States will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for a two-year term. While the Obama administration has been preparing for this for several years, it remains to be seen how the president will balance the concerns of most Arctic residents who view development of the region as vital to improving their economic and social livelihood and those individuals inside and outside the administration who want to limit development out of concern for the how economic development may cause local environmental degradation while also accelerating climate change.

The National Strategy for the Arctic Region

As part of this preparation, in May 2013, the president launched a new National Strategy for the Arctic Region based on three principles

  1. Advancement of U.S. security interests defined as ensuring the ability of our aircraft and vessels to operate, in a manner consistent with international law through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic; to support lawful commerce; to achieve greater awareness of activities in the region; and to intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities including ice-capable platforms as needed;
  2. Pursue responsible Arctic regional stewardship defined as protection of the Arctic environment and conservation of its resources, establishment of an integrated Arctic management framework, charting of the Arctic region, and employment of scientific research and traditional knowledge to increase understanding of the Arctic;
  3. Strengthen international cooperation defined as working through bilateral relationships and multilateral institutions, including the Arctic Council, to advance collective interests, promote shared Arctic state prosperity, protect the Arctic environment, and enhance regional security, and to work toward U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Undergirding these principles were commitments to make decisions using the best available information, to foster cooperation with the state of Alaska, other international partners, the private sector, and to consult and coordinate with Alaskan natives to gain traditional knowledge. As part of this new strategy, the president appointed Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. as the U.S. special representative for the Arctic in July 2014. Shortly after his appointment, and in several major speeches since, including one at Brookings, the admiral has stated that the administration’s agenda centers on stewardship of the Arctic Ocean including insuring its safety and security, improving economic and living conditions for the regions’ inhabitants, and addressing the impacts of climate change on the region. 

The administration’s new policy was buttressed in January 2015 by an executive order designed to enhance coordination of all the various agencies responsible for different aspects of federal oversight of the Arctic (Alaska). Paradoxically, however, the fact that the reorganization came nearly in tandem with the announcement of new wilderness restrictions on the exploration of oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the Arctic Coastal Plain. This announcement left many Alaskans skeptical on how further restrictions on development of the state’s resources could be viewed as improving economic and living conditions of people in the region. In a February 2015 meeting of Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) in Yellowknife, Canada, the administration looked to put meat on the bones of what it intended to pursue upon assumption of the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. This resulted in an additional elucidation of 15 broad themes that had originally been presented in a Virtual Stakeholder Outreach Forum on December 2, 2014 in Washington, D.C..

Streamlining Arctic policy and key questions

The announced reorganization of government agencies and lines of authority dealing with U.S. Arctic and Arctic Council policy has done little or nothing to streamline the overlapping and sometimes conflicting policies governing natural resource development or energy projects in Alaska. These overlapping jurisdictions are well highlighted in a major new National Petroleum Council (NPC) report, Arctic Potential: Realizing the Promise of U.S. Arctic Oil and Gas Resources. This report was prepared at the request of Energy Secretary Moniz to address how best to pursue prudent development of Alaska’s offshore oil and gas resources and ironically issued shortly after the president’s closing of ANWR. Whether or not the White House was even aware of the NPC’s report, which represented months of substantive work by many people, remains open to question.

The Arctic reorganization plan did little to resolve some key questions as to actually who is in charge of Arctic policy in the United States. While Admiral Papp was named “Coordinator” of the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship, this position is not listed in the Council’s enabling documents. Historically, the foreign minister or the secretary of state of the country chairs the Council while a career diplomat chairs the meetings of the senior officials dealing with the day-to-day activities of the Council. It appears that Admiral Papp has neither of these positions. In any case, it looks from the organizational chart that the White House science advisor will be the real coordinator of U.S. Arctic policy.

The chief problem that U.S. Arctic policy must resolve is that while in the Arctic Council we have to address issues affecting the entire Circumpolar North, our domestic Arctic policy centers only on Alaska, where a slew of domestic agencies have overlapping and often conflicting oversight and regulatory responsibilities. The situation is made still more complex by the large amount of the state that is owned by the federal government. This makes it almost inevitable that any resource development project by private or state interests will run into federal government restrictions, in terms of needing to cross federal land to get a resource to market, permitting to ensure that water resources are not polluted, or making sure that fish and wildlife habitats are not disturbed, etc.

Our Arctic policy also suffers from an acute lack of awareness by most Americans that we are an Arctic nation with a huge maritime boundary and very limited resources (ice-worthy ships, proper navigation charts and aids, lack of port facilities, lack of search and rescue capabilities, lack of knowledge of what fishery resources we possess) to protect it. While many of these issues lie outside the scope of the Arctic Council, many are cross-cutting with our Arctic neighbors, most notably with increased traffic in the region (from tourism, fishing, energy development, and shipping) comes the increased possibility of an accident. Currently, the United States does not have the capable means (both in terms of timely response and adequate infrastructure) to respond to an accident in the Arctic, which could be catastrophic, as all of these industries are active and gaining popularity every day.

Core questions for the administration

As the United States takes the helm of the Arctic Council, there are several core issues that the administration must address. Some critical questions are: What is the U.S. position on the development of the Arctic’s oil, gas, mineral, and fishery resources? What specific action is the United States prepared to support in the Arctic Council to uplift the standard of living of Arctic people across the Circumpolar North? Given that each icebreaker costs at least $700 million and that we only have one in operation, what resources are we prepared to expand to build a fleet capable to respond to events in the Arctic? Should any of these expenses be viewed as vital to our national security and defense, and if so, which budget should they be taken out of? What role does the United States in its chairmanship role see for closer interaction between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council? Would the United States support the closing off of certain ecologically sensitive parts of the Arctic to all commercial exploitation? Finally, how does the administration in its Arctic Council leadership role get its Arctic policy in sync with that of the state of Alaska in its recently released Alaska Arctic Policy Implementation Plan?

Other Arctic nations surpass the United States in terms of Arctic policies. Norway, Russia, Canada, and even Denmark (through complicated ties with Greenland’s claim on the Arctic) all have the Arctic at the front and center of policymaking decisions. I hope to see these issues addressed as the United States moves to enact effective policy on the Arctic over the next two years as the alternative is too great a risk and too great a wasted opportunity.