Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Guest editorial: America’s responsibility, opportunity as an Arctic nation

Although many in the Lower 48 did not pay much attention, the White House recently released an important new policy statement dealing with an area of the world that is close to the hearts of many Alaskans — the Arctic.

The Arctic Policy 2009 calls for enhanced security, increased environmental protection, sustainable energy development, international scientific cooperation and greater involvement of indigenous people in the Arctic. U.S. 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 — thanks to Alaska’s geographic location — and details new objectives, priorities and needs for the region.

Climate change and the environmental changes that come with it are occurring at an unprecedented rate in the Arctic. The polar ice cap is melting and areas that have never been accessible to energy development, shipping, and tourism have been opening up during the summer, leading some to predict that one day in the near future the fabled Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, might be a regular shipping route. This is an intriguing prospect for Alaskans.

A more accessible Arctic Ocean will require enhanced environmental protection in order to protect the vulnerable Arctic ecosystem. We must find the balance to allow for reasonable development of our 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, thereby greatly increasing the amount of maritime traffic just off our shores.

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. We in Alaska know we have many of the resources that 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.

There is also tremendous opportunity for Alaska to be even more of a leader in international scientific research. Some of the best scientific minds are already working in Alaska in our universities and in the field on climate and Arctic research.

While energy production in the Arctic is vital, we must not forget about Alaska’s first peoples of the North: the Inupiat, Athabascan and Yupik. The dramatic changes that are occurring may have a profound impact on our environment and their traditional way of life. Preserving the culture, languages and subsistence lifestyle of these Alaskans must remain paramount in our endeavors. 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, seeking to claim almost half of the Arctic, it sent a strong message to Alaskans and the rest of the world. While the United States is working to map our own extended continental shelf, the best way to secure international recognition of our claim is by ratifying the Convention on the Law of the Sea. We cannot dispute other claims that might overlap with ours until we do. 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.

Alaska and the United States must prepare for a melting Arctic and the international implications that brings. Our neighbors, Canada and Russia, are continuing to move forward with their claims and the development of their offshore energy resources and shipping routes. It is crucial to Alaska that the United States engage in multilateral discussions to establish strong international agreements to manage activities in the Arctic. If the U.S. is going to be a leader in this vital region, it is time to step up to the plate. Congress and the executive branch need to work together to implement this new presidential directive and give the Arctic the attention it deserves.

Sen. Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, hosted the eighth Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians in Fairbanks in August.

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