Op-Ed: America’s responsibility and opportunity as an Arctic nation

It didn’t garner a lot of public attention, but the White House recently released an important new policy statement dealing with an area of the world that is starting to gain the high level attention it deserves – the Arctic.

In a joint National Security Council-Homeland Security Presidential Directive, President Bush calls for enhanced security, increased environmental protection, sustainable energy development, international scientific cooperation and greater involvement of indigenous people in the Arctic.  Our Arctic Policy was last updated in 1994, but the Arctic is vastly different today than it was 15 years ago. The administration’s updated Arctic policy recognizes the United States as an Arctic nation and details new objectives, directives and implementation for this region. 


Why all the fuss about a frigid, remote region known to most Americans for Eskimos, polar bears and shifting ice floes? Answer: Climate change and the fact that environmental changes are occurring at an unprecedented rate in this region. The polar ice cap is melting and areas that have never been accessible to energy development and shipping have been opening up during the summer months, leading some to predict that one summer soon the fabled Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, might be a regular shipping route.


A more accessible Arctic Ocean will require enhanced environmental protection, navigational, and marine safety measures.  We must find the balance to allow for reasonable development of the vast natural resources while maintaining strong protections for the environment.  Maritime activities relating to the transportation of goods, oil and gas, tourism and research will surely increase as marine access to the Arctic Ocean increases.  Marine transportation through an ice-diminished Arctic has the potential to reduce shipping routes by thousands of miles.  The distance through the Northern Sea Route reduces the Hamburg to Yokahama voyage by almost 5,000 miles. Recognizing that there will be increased activity in this area represents perhaps the greatest challenge and need for international cooperation. This is action that needs to be taken now, not after a major maritime disaster occurs.


The Arctic, however, isn’t just about responsibility – it offers opportunity as well.  America’s Arctic may hold the key to bringing down the cost of energy in this country and reducing our dependence on unstable foreign sources of energy. Recently, the United States Geological Survey estimated that the Alaskan Arctic might contain more than 30 billion barrels of oil and 221 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its undiscovered reserves.


While energy production in the Arctic is vital, we also must not forget about the indigenous people of the Arctic: the Inuit, Inupiat, Athabaskan, Yupik and Saami. The dramatic changes that are occurring may have a profound impact on their environment and traditional way of life.  Preserving their culture, languages and subsistence lifestyle while western civilization knocks on their door will be extremely challenging.  That is why they must be involved in the political, legal, and scientific decision making to ensure that their voice, as the residents of the Arctic, will be heard.


When Russia planted a flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, thus seeking to claim almost half of the Arctic, it sent a resounding message to the rest of the world. While the United States is working to map our own extended continental shelf, we cannot lay claim to our rightful area in the Arctic until we ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea.  Nor can we dispute other claims, such as Russia’s or Canada’s, that will likely overlap with ours.  This intense interest in claiming Arctic territory is primarily driven by the quest for Arctic resources. Until recently, the resources of the Arctic were deemed to be too difficult and expensive to develop, but the region is now being explored and developed at an unprecedented rate.


There are some who do not see the point in joining the rest of the world in ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty.  But I believe it is important for the United States to be a party to this treaty and be a player in the process, rather than an outsider hoping our interests are not damaged. We are the only maritime nation in the world that has not signed the treaty. Joining the Convention would also give current and future administrations both enhanced credibility and leverage in calling upon other nations to meet Convention responsibilities.


The new Presidential Decision Directive not only significantly improves and updates the United States Arctic Policy, but sends the right message to the world that the Arctic is important to this nation and we stand ready to work cooperatively with the international community in this region. 


While the race to claim the Arctic continues, the United States must prepare for a melting
Arctic and the international implications that brings.  Our northern neighbors, Canada and Russia, are continuing to move forward with their claims and the development of their offshore energy resources and shipping routes.  If the U.S. is going to be a participant and a  leader in this region, it is time to step up to the plate and engage.  The updated U.S. Arctic policy gives us a good road map. Congress and the executive branch need to work together to implement this policy and give the Arctic the attention it deserves.