A senior federal government group led by a top White House official was in Alaska on June 14 meeting with state and local officials on President Barack Obama’s new Arctic policy.
Over the next few months the group will flesh out the policy, which was announced recently, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council in Environmental Quality, told those at a public meeting held in Anchorage.
State officials meeting with the group said they were not entirely satisfied and that the policy statement has a lot of generalities but no commitments.
Released in March in the form of recommendations to the president, the policy document lays out information on climate change effects and changing patterns of use in the Arctic, along with risks. It recommends an overall coordinated approach to Arctic policy among federal agencies in consultation with the state of Alaska, municipal governments and Native organizations.
The policy relates only to the U.S.-controlled Arctic, defining the region as extending from the northern Bering Sea and Bering Straits to the Chukchi and Beaufort sea regions offshore northern Alaska.
“As we develop an implementation plan for the new policy it’s important that we articulate our goals. There are changes in the Arctic. Sea ice is declining bringing new environmental challenges and access to natural resources,” Sutley said in her remarks.
Three top strategic priorities in the policy will be national security, responsible environmental stewardship and peace, “keeping the Arctic free of conflict,” Sutley said.
The federal group will be reaching out for the best information available, she said. Sutley also mentioned the importance of the government working in partnership with the private sector, particularly on infrastructure projects.
Sutley was accompanied by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, who chaired a task force developing the Arctic policy; Kathy Sullivan, Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans; David Balton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans; U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard’s 17th District (Alaska), and other federal and White House officials in public meetings and session with state cabinet officials and the Alaska Federation of Natives.
At the public session, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Ostebo said the opening of the Arctic is happening faster than people expect. On June 10 the first commercial vessel of the year moved north through the Bering Strait, two weeks earlier than has happened in prior years, Ostebo said.
Significantly, it was a fishing vessel, the 100-foot “Norseman II,” a U.S. registered vessel. Ostebo said it was the first non-ice strengthened vessel to go north.
U.S. and Russian authorities also recently scrambled to put together a rescue plan for Russian scientists stranded at an Arctic research station built on an ice floe that was disintegrating due to warmer conditions. The station was about 700 miles north of Wainwright, on Alaska’s northwest coast.
Russian agencies were able to evacuate the scientists, but a joint U.S.-Russian plan for an air evacuation was ready to be acted on, he said.
Both of Alaska’s U.S. senators — Lisa Murkowski in person and Mark Begich by teleconference — addressed the panel during its public session June 14, urging the group to engage Alaskans in the development of the policy.
“Until the new Arctic policy was released last month the U.S. was the only Arctic nation without an explicit policy statement,” Begich said. “I’m pleased to see the strategy, but you will need to consult with people who live in the Arctic as you develop it, and there is more and better science that is needed.”
The senator said he was disappointed, however, that the Obama administration has included no funds for a new U.S. icebreaker in its new budget.
Murkowski said there is increasing Arctic marine traffic and a need for new navigation aids, better mapping, deepwater port capabilities and customs and border officials who can protect the U.S. Arctic boundary.
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who has long been involved in Arctic
policy issues, said the Arctic is increasingly important to the state’s economy, including oil from the Outer Continental Shelf in keeping the pipeline full, and fisheries and mineral development.
State Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, co-chair of the state’s new Arctic Policy Task Force, described the organization of the state panel and its purpose of serving as a conduit of information from Alaskans to the federal officials working on Arctic policy.
The state council had just concluded its second meeting in Barrow of June 12 and 13, after a first organizational meeting in Juneau March 23, Herron said.
Former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, now chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, moderated the public session.
In comments from the public, Carl Portman, representing the Resource Development Council, urged the panel to work with the private sector.
“The private sector can, as it has in the past, be a meaningful partner, not only in responsible development, but research,” Portman said. Any proposed standards should be clear and consistent to avoid risk, uncertainty and delay, he said.
These could frustrate efforts to expand commerce and develop essential resources, Portman said.
State officials who met with the federal panel earlier on June 14 were not entirely satisfied with the meeting.
“The purpose of our meeting was to reinforce the point that the state has a lot of experience in the Arctic, and that the state should be considered a sovereign and equal partner,” said Stefanie Moreland, Gov. Sean Parnell’s special assistant for Arctic and ocean issues.
Moreland coordinated the state’s meeting with the federal group, which included a number of state agencies with expertise, such as the Departments of Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources and Fish and Game.
Two areas the state wanted to stress, Moreland said, was the state’s work on spill response in northern areas and the Arctic ports study, done jointly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and research on Arctic marine traffic and infrastructure needs by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“We particularly asked them to define their own roles and responsibilities and to give us a central point of contact,” Moreland said.
Deputy Commissioner of Natural Resources Ed Fogels attended the meeting with the federal group and said federal agency managers present were very interested in the state’s recent streamlining of natural resource permitting.
Moreland said the state is concerned that the federal government put substance in its policy, particularly with commitments on mapping and icebreakers.
“The national Arctic strategy Is not coming with any resources attached. We’re concerned that Arctic initiative will be funded with existing money drawn from other programs,” she said.
Also, the state needs more assurance that it will be considered an equal party as federal Arctic policy is developed.
Fogels said the federal agencies have to demonstrate they are willing to work with the state, and the examples set so far of a White House interagency working group on Arctic oil is not encouraging, although the state is supposed to be a member of that. “They meet regularly in Washington, D.C. but it’s mostly the federal family. We always have to press to be involved,” he said.
“It seems like their idea of compromise is the state going all the way,” toward the federal position, he said.
Tim Bradner can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in the June Issue 4 2013 issue of Alaska Journal of Commerce