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Coming to Agreement in the Arctic

Getting to know Alaskans and their views


Chart: NOAA

Each day brings a new awareness of changes in the Arctic region—more ships headed across the top of Russia toward the Bering Strait; an image of dozens of polar bears feasting on a whale carcass in Kaktovik; news that Alaska’s valuable king crab fishery can fall victim to the increased acidification of Arctic waters. The topics are varied, but share a common theme—the Arctic is changing, rapidly, and at a pace that is difficult to keep up with. Rising temperatures affect all regions of the world, but none as drastically or as swiftly as the Arctic, where the loss of ice is leading to profound changes.

For Alaska, the nation’s sole Arctic state, these are profound developments. More ships in the Bering Strait pose risks to the surrounding coast of northwest Alaska. Interest in offshore minerals, and someday fisheries, brings new people to the region. Today, state and local officials are trying to figure out a strategy for Alaskans to play a meaningful role in policy discussions about the Arctic. Those discussions are dominated by the federal government, for now, and Alaskans are seeking ways to have their views heard.

There are worries that some of their views are not being heard.


Government Drivers

The federal government is in the driver’s seat because of the Arctic Council, the eight-member multinational body of Arctic nations directly affected by changes in the region—the United States, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Russia. A few other nations also have “permanent observer” status, including Great Britain, a long-standing observer, and most recently Japan, China, India, Singapore, and others who feel they have a stake in the Arctic because of opening sea lanes (Singapore) or its resources (China and India). The United States will assume the chair of the Arctic Council in two years. Canada is now the chair.

Ironically, the United States is engaged in Arctic issues only because of Alaska, its only connection to the Arctic. But state officials can’t sit at the table at the Arctic Council meetings. Federal officials sit there. The state can, however, feed ideas to the Arctic Council through its indigenous representatives on the council.

Within the council, Alaska Natives and other indigenous people of the Arctic are official “permanent participants” through organizations like the Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. The council notes that the permanent participants “have full consultation rights in connection with the Council’s negotiations and decisions.” Indigenous organizations can and do provide a conduit for the views of other Alaskans also shared by their members, particularly in matters of environmental protection.

Some state officials are also involved with the Arctic Council’s working groups, where many of the policy decisions are actually formulated to be presented to the full council. However, their influence is limited.

The state Legislature joined the debate with its new Alaska Arctic Policy Commission to ensure that “our voices are heard and considered,” according to its co-chair, state Representative Bob Herron of Bethel. The commission’s major tools of influence will be reports and recommendations it will publish, which may be difficult for the federal government to ignore because the Commission’s members represent a cross-section of coastal community leaders as well as legislators and some state administration officials.

In the Governor’s Office, Stefanie Moreland serves as the senior advisor for fisheries, oceans, and Arctic policy. She interfaces and coordinates with state and federal agencies on Arctic policy matters.

One positive note is that Alaska is well represented on the Arctic Research Commission. This federally-appointed body includes some Alaskans that help guide federal research priorities on the Arctic. Fran Ulmer, a former lieutenant governor, is now its chair. Mead Treadwell, the current lieutenant governor, is the former chair.


A Forum and Consensus

Two Alaskan non-governmental entities are also active in Arctic issues: the Institute of the North, which has long been engaged in the issues since the mid-1990s, and the Arctic Circle, a creation of Alaska businesswoman Alice Rogoff. The benefit of these organizations (although Arctic Circle is still new) is in providing a forum for discussion and consensus building among interested citizens, many who are influential, on Arctic issues.

The Institute of the North’s new Alaska Business Roundtable, which meets quarterly, will also allow Alaska business leaders interested in the Arctic to keep abreast of who is doing what. “We bring people together, at one table, to talk about issues important to the Arctic. We come out with recommendations and ideas that shape policy,” says Nils Andreassen, the institute’s executive director.

Keeping up with developments in the Arctic can be a challenge. There are several working groups under the Arctic Council, many engaged in things that could affect Alaska. There are also international bodies such as the International Maritime Organization, which is developing a new Polar Code of safety standards for vessels operating in Arctic waters.

State agencies are stretched keeping up with all the Arctic missions and initiatives of federal agencies and the onslaughts of new federal reports and policy recommendations—six published last spring.

At this point, some aspects of federal Arctic priorities, as they seem to be developing, appear out of sync with what Alaskan officials want. President Barack Obama released a federal policy document last March that outlined broad goals, and later in the spring a “strategy paper” on its implementation was released by a White House group working to coordinate things. The reaction in the state was less than positive.

Treadwell feels the federal strategy is too focused on broad and undefined environmental protection and gives little attention to economic activities, like oil and gas development and shipping, that an opening Arctic will encourage.

More importantly, it says nothing about one environmental challenge that is very important to Alaskans: the absence of rules requiring international shipping using the Bering Strait to plan for oil spill prevention or cleanup.

Treadwell has credentials on these matters. He was chair of the Arctic Research Commission, a presidential appointment, for several years. Earlier in his career Treadwell was a deputy state Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, a position that involved him directly in the state’s regulation of oil spill contingency planning required for tankers and other large vessels, which are among the most stringent in the world.

The Arctic Council took some steps to prepare for emergencies such as oil spills when its members signed a binding spill response agreement earlier this year. But the agreement deals with mutual-aid among member countries in response to an event. It does not deal with measures to prevent spills or to ensure that shipping companies have taken precautions and made contingency plans.

Such concerns were recently brought to light when a Russian tanker carrying diesel fuel struck an ice floe as it traveled the Northern Sea Route. The tanker started taking on water but was rescued by a Russian icebreaker and no oil was spilled. Reacting to the accident, Treadwell acknowledged the new agreement that would have Arctic nations help each other in cleanup but also pointed out that more work was needed in preventing spills.


Polar Standards

To be fair, shipping standards, which include the kinds of protections Alaskans want, are not within the jurisdiction of the Arctic Council but rather the International Maritime Agency, or IMO.

That agency is now working on a “Polar Code” of standards, but this is moving at the glacial pace typical of international bodies, and it is not known whether it will include spill protections with teeth, which Alaskans desire.

Another goal of Alaskans, Treadwell says, is the identification of port locations in or near the Arctic to support increased shipping, particularly in emergency response, as well as offshore oil and gas activity.

What is striking, he says, is that neither of these priorities is mentioned in the federal policy statements, at least so far. Some progress is being made with ports as a result of state initiatives and funding.

The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and US Army Corps of Engineers are jointly studying potential port sites in western Alaska. A preliminary report identified Nome and Port Clarence, near Wales on the Seward Peninsula, as top contenders. Nome was selected because of its existing community infrastructure, although as a port it would require dredging. Port Clarence has a natural harbor with deeper water, but infrastructure is lacking.

The Corps is drafting an Environmental Impact Statement that will select a preferred alternative.


Lack of Deference

More than anything, what worries Alaskans is the lack of deference that federal officials are giving Alaska, the nation’s only Arctic state. Ed Fogels, Deputy Commissioner of Natural Resources, is among state officials who have met with officials developing the federal policy to urge the federal team for greater involvement of the state.

“Alaska has a lot of Arctic expertise and the federal government needs to look at what we are doing well in the Arctic,” Fogels said at a recent listening session for federal officials sponsored by the Institute of the North. The state, Fogels said, “wants to be a partner, not just a stakeholder” in the development of Arctic policy.

Fogels said he isn’t encouraged that this will happen, given the history of other federal working groups that nominally include the state but in practice do not. “It’s a federal club. We’re on the outside looking in,” he said.

Of the two nonprofits engaged in Arctic issues, the Institute of the North has been at it for several years. The Institute’s main function is sponsoring meetings to draw people together, but it also creates products, including its signature accomplishment, promoting and then managing preparation of the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, published in 2009.

The assessment projects future shipping and identifies infrastructure needs. It has now been adopted as an official document by the Arctic Council. An update is now underway, funded by a state legislative appropriation.

Last year the Institute helped draft recommendations for the US federal government for when the United States becomes chair of the Arctic Council in 2015. The recommendations included priorities for infrastructure and coastal protection voiced earlier by Treadwell, but also included that Arctic activities be managed for the benefit of people in the region. These ideas have been incorporated into Canada’s goals under its term and the Institute hopes the United States will also adopt them, Andreassen says.

The other nonprofit, businesswoman Alice Rogoff’s Arctic Circle, was recently formed. It has a high profile with its first major meeting planned in October in Iceland.

Roghoff says Arctic Circle is not an action group but a venue for discussion among people with differing views. “We’re simply a big tent, a big, open democratic tent. We’re policy agnostic. As a convener [of forums] we don’t believe it’s appropriate to have a policy prescription,” she says.

“One exception, however, is that Arctic Circle will advocate that Arctic policy benefits the people of the Arctic, and to help their voice be heard,” Rogoff says.

Getting people together is basically the Davos model, she says, referring to the World Economic Forum meetings taking place since 1971, initially in Davos, Switzerland. “You get people together so they get to know each other. You can’t come to agreement unless you know each other.”

Shehla Anjum writes from Anchorage.

This first appeared in the November 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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