A cautious approach to Arctic policy is needed as summer sea ice recedes and marine habitats change amid warming climate, Edward Itta, mayor of the North Slope Borough, said in a statement read to the Resource Development Council's recent annual conference in Anchorage.
Subsistence hunters, the oil industry, environmental groups, governments and shipping businesses all have their agendas for the Arctic.
"There's no formula for easy accommodation of all the various interests involved," Itta said. "Competing claims need to be balanced and all of these need to be weighed against the best interests of the arctic system."
However, given that outer continental shelf oil and gas exploration is under way, it's particularly urgent to put in place standards for offshore oil and gas development, he said.
The development of Arctic policies must include a meaningful role for Arctic Natives, he said.
"Nobody knows the extent of the impacts to marine wildlife caused by the retreat of the sea ice. We don't know how long this will go on, how much of the ice cap will be left in a decade or two, or how well our subsistence wildlife will adapt to such rapid ecological change," Itta said.
"That is the backdrop for us as we consider policy options for offshore oil and gas development. And I have to add that incidents like the well failure in the Timor Sea off the coast of Australia do not bolster our confidence. A million gallons of oil in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas would be devastating and ... there can be no denying that the risks are real and particularly challenging under seasonal conditions of ice and weather and darkness," he said.
On the other hand, the North Slope Borough economy relies on the oil and gas industry.
"Our concerns do not lead us to the same conclusions as the environmental groups," Itta said. "Like the state of Alaska and all of its citizens, residents on the North Slope depend on oil and gas development as the foundation of our local economy. And our participation in the cash economy is part of what allows us to continue to protect and participate in our traditional subsistence hunting activities."
Although the North Slope communities have supported oil and gas development onshore, the expansion to the outer continental shelf raises the risks associated with accidents and constitutes a direct threat to the health of the bowhead whale, "our most precious subsistence resource," Itta told the pro-development group.
Still, he said, "While I would prefer not to see oil rigs in our water, I understand that the industry has to follow the resource."
Given that reality, the North Slope communities need to work with the industry and with federal agencies to craft the best possible environmental protections and mitigation measures.
"It's a win-win, and I believe it can set a standard that puts Alaska in the forefront of global offshore development standards," Itta said.
The borough has put forward eight policy positions as essential to OCS development. These positions include requiring oil pipelines to deliver oil to land, rather than loading tankers offshore, and a zero-discharge standard for oil facilities.
Other North Slope Borough policy positions include the ramping up of the U.S. Coast Guard presence in the Arctic, a requirement for independent ice-trained pilots on the bridges of ships in Arctic waters, a beefed-up effort to conduct baseline science studies in the region, and controls over the number of projects allowed in an area at any one time.
The North Slope Borough sees the moves toward listing Arctic wildlife species under the federal Endangered Species Act as a bigger challenge than achieving agreement on arctic policies.
"The fallout from endangered species listings is likely to hamstring the routine business of the North Slope Borough in fundamental ways, just as it could similarly effect industry operations."
The borough opposed the 2008 listing of the polar bear.
"Climate change poses serious potential problems for marine mammals in the arctic, but the Endangered Species Act is not the right tool to address the problem," Itta said. "I believe it is likely to cause havoc with all kinds of human activity in the region without necessarily having any effect on the health of the animals. ... We're all in the same boat in this regard and I'd like to work with industry to come up with innovative solutions."
Rather than piecemeal animal protection for individual Arctic species, the borough would prefer to see a general-purpose habitat protection plan for multiple species, Itta said.
As an example of the type of problem that the polar bear listing might cause, Itta cited a plan to relocate the airport at the village of Kaktovik on the Beaufort Sea coast. The current airport poses an environmental concern because it is periodically inundated by storm surges. But the permitting of a new runway site may become stymied by the proximity of polar bear den locations.
"Alaska's greatest chance of success as we move forward in the Arctic is to institutionalize the attitude that industry and local communities are in this together, or even that we're on the same team, because I believe we need each other and we can certainly accomplish a lot more if we're able to sit down as collaborators instead of adversaries," Itta said. "This is my hope for the future of Arctic policy development."