Commercial interest in the Arctic has grown with declines in summer sea ice cover - since 2007 the extent of Arctic sea ice has been significantly less than it was in the decade after satellite measurements started in 1978.
For example, commercial and tourist ships - following the Northern Sea route north of Russia - have transited the arctic many times in the past four years, and exploration drilling efforts in the U.S. offshore, Norwegian and Russian arctic regions are regularly in the news.
Washington, D.C., policymakers expect that commercial activity will continue to grow - and with increasing activity come increased risks to national security and greater risks of oil spills, which drive interest in improved technology and regulations.
Other important areas of concern for policymakers include the potential impacts on the economies and cultures of native peoples.
Increased interest by Washington, D.C., policymakers will be driven, in part, by the United States assuming the leadership of the Arctic Council in May, and by Republicans gaining a majority in the Senate, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) assuming the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 114th Congress.
The newly formed House Arctic Working Group, chaired by congressmen Don Young (R-Alaska) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), also will draw attention to the economic, strategic and environmental interests of the United States in the Arctic.
(Author's note: This article does not consider current or proposed regulations for oil and gas operations, a complex topic for a future column - in early 2015, the Department of the Interior is expected to release proposed regulations for drilling in the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf.)
In May the United States will take over the leadership of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum created to address the concerns to Arctic nations and the region's indigenous peoples.
Canada has chaired the council for the past two years. Council members include eight countries - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States - and six Arctic indigenous groups. Many European and Asian nations are observers.
The Council began organizing in 1991 and held its first ministerial level meeting in 1998.
Retired Adm. Robert Papp Jr. is the U.S. special representative for the Arctic and will represent Secretary of State John Kerry as chair of the council. The U.S. presentation on plans for the U.S. chairmanship of the council (Dec. 2, 2014 Virtual Stakeholder Outreach Forum) defines three focus areas:
- Addressing the impacts of climate change.
- Stewardship of the Arctic Ocean.
- Improving economic and living conditions.
An outgrowth of the Arctic Council is the Arctic Economic Council, which formed last September. The Economic Council will focus on economic growth, environmental protection and social development. It includes three business representatives of each Arctic state and the indigenous-participant organizations.
The U.S. tenure as chair of the Arctic Council will reflect long-standing executive branch policy:
♦ In January 2009, President Bush signed a National Security Presidential Directive on Arctic Region Policy, which focused on assuring environmentally sustainable resource and economic development, increased scientific research and monitoring, greater involvement of indigenous communities in decision making, and greater coordination among the Arctic nations.
♦ In May 2013, the Obama administration released the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which aims to increase U.S. security interests with improved transportation and communication infrastructure, and environmentally responsible development of oil, natural gas and other resources.
The strategy also calls for improved hazardous spill containment and response, increased research and increased international cooperation to protect the environmental and enhance security.
The Obama administration, as the Bush administration before it, supports U.S. accession to the United Nations (U.N.) Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1984 treaty signed by 166 countries. The U.S. Navy and many oil companies support the treaty as a guarantee of rights of marine transit and of title to minerals under continental slopes that extend more than 200 nautical miles from shore.
Some Senate Republicans do not support the treaty, arguing that the treaty would cede American sovereignty to the U.N.
Under the treaty, Denmark, Canada and Russia have filed claims to large areas of the Arctic including the North Pole based on the extent of their continental shelves.
On July 23, 2014, the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing to discuss implementing U.S. policy in the Arctic.
Much of the hearing focused on the shortage of U.S. icebreakers: The Coast Guard has two operational icebreakers, while Russia has nearly 40, and other nations have about 40 more.
The size and ice-thickness capability of these vessels varies greatly, so the numbers are not directly equivalent, but the U.S. fleet is probably inadequate - the NSF charters a privately owned ice-capable research vessel for its Arctic and Antarctic research.
The Congressional Research Service estimated in 2012 that a new heavy icebreaker (equivalent to our largest) would cost $1 billion.
Many Republican legislators support opening the coastal plain (1002 Area) of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, and accelerating oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Legislation on these topics may pass the new Senate, and pro-drilling legislation frequently passes the House.
Congress, however, is unlikely to be able to overcome a presidential veto.
Advanced Technology For Energy Development
North of the Arctic Circle are more than 400 oil and gas fields potentially containing approximately 240 billion barrels of oil and natural gas equivalent. In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil resources and 30 percent of its undiscovered conventional natural gas resources.
The Implementation Plan for The National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which the White House released in January 2014, directs the U.S. Department of the Interior with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Commerce (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to take the lead in advancing technology for non-renewable energy, focusing on technologies to reduce the risk and consequences of an oil spill from ships transiting the region or from oil and gas operations.
In support of the DOE effort, the National Petroleum Council, a federally chartered and privately funded committee that advises the secretary of energy, will send the report of its Arctic research study to the secretary in March. The study's key findings were released in December 2014.
♦ Arctic oil and gas resources can contribute significantly to global energy needs over the next several decades.
♦ Most of the U.S. Arctic offshore conventional oil resources can be developed using existing field-proven technology.
♦ There have been substantial recent technology and regulatory advancements to reduce the risk and consequences of a spill.
♦ Development of the Arctic resources requires securing public confidence and using local knowledge.