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Empowering Alaska key to roadmap for US Arctic policy

  • Author: Bob Herron
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 14, 2012

OPINION: Alaska, the United States, and the world are finally giving America's Arctic the attention it irrefutably deserves. This is due to Alaskans like the late Gov. Walter Hickel; Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell; former North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta; U.S. Arctic Research Commission Chair Fran Ulmer; Nils Andreassen of the Institute of the North; Rep. Reggie Joule; Sen. Lesil McGuire; Dr. Lawson Brigham and Dr. Mark Myers of UAF; and many, many others including the unabashed Arctic champion and enthusiastic founder of the Arctic Imperative Summit, Alice Rogoff.

The promise of offshore oil development, increased shipping, mineral export, LNG export and tourism makes the Arctic exceptionally important to our future in Alaska. But we must also remember that people live in the Arctic, and improving their quality of life and respecting their views is key.

Alaska Northern Waters Task Force

The Alaska Northern Waters Task Force (ANWTF) was a panel legislatively formed in 2010 to delineate Alaska's interests in the Arctic. ANWTF's final report has been available since January. Along with Rep. Reggie Joule, I recently wrote about two sections of the report: Governance and Planning and Infrastructure Investment. To recap the latter, there is a vast need for:

1. A U.S. Coast Guard Forward Base in the Arctic;

2. Additional icebreakers and other ice-capable vessels;

3. Continuing the analysis/development of ports/safe harbors in the Arctic region;

4. Support for search and rescue coordination centers along the coast to assist federal, state, and local responders; and

5. Increased broadband access.

In the report's Governance section, the ANWTF suggested the creation of an Alaska Arctic Policy Commission (AAPC), which was subsequently created through legislation last session and will be seated soon. Over the next two years, the AAPC will hold hearings around the state, just as the ANWTF did, and I strongly encourage Alaskans to engage in this process and help the Commission deliver a significant product in its final report due January 30, 2015.

Whereas the ANWTF scoped out the issues and questions surrounding Alaska and Arctic policy, the AAPC will have the tougher task of actually answering these questions and determining what Alaska's Arctic policy should be.

Alaska must position itself regarding our nation's Arctic policy – Alaska may not be able to take that leadership role without first understanding what its own priorities can and should be. The AAPC will provide that opportunity for Alaskans to remain aggressively involved in the ongoing Arctic dialogue and debate and positively shape our state's Arctic policy.

De-politicize the siting of an Arctic Alaska port?

One idea may be to create an Alaska Arctic Port and Development Authority whose board would be responsible for developing (in consultation with federal, state, and private institutions, including USDOT and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) a comprehensive plan for a regional system of ports, including a deepwater port and related facilities. Rather than developing a port here and a port there, a holistic plan to maximize efficiencies of the entire port system in Alaska's Arctic could be formulated. This approach will be part of a workshop focus during the Institute of the North's "Week of the Arctic" on the afternoon of August 16th, at the Dena'ina Center.

America should ratify the Law of the Sea treaty

Also notable in Arctic governance is the importance of U.S. Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty – the international agreement that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world's oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. Now, 162 nations are party to the treaty, but the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify. In 2011, the Alaska Legislature passed House Joint Resolution 19, urging the United States Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. Ratification will allow the United States to peacefully legitimize its Extended Continental Shelf claims. Failure to ratify jeopardizes the United States' effectiveness in shaping future ocean policies and risks losing any strategic initiative in the Arctic.

Ratification is particularly important to Alaska considering the estimated petroleum deposits off our northern shores. Ratification will solidify U.S. sovereignty over its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) out to 200 miles, but also will expand sovereignty to the Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) – up to 650 miles into the Arctic Ocean! This area of the northern Chukchi Sea is deemed to be particularly rich in hydrocarbons. With Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, the United States will assert our sovereignty over the largest ECS that we can legitimately claim.

The Arctic Caucus

The Arctic Caucus, a working group within the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER), is also a key partner in Arctic policy. In 2009, the PNWER members from Alaska, Yukon, and Northwest Territories formed the Arctic Caucus to explore issues of common interest. The Arctic Caucus has developed a dynamic action plan integral to the success of the working group. Over 20 action items have been identified as outcomes from Caucus meetings in Barrow, Alaska; Whitehorse, Yukon; and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Current priorities of the Arctic Caucus include strategies to maximize opportunities for North American interests during the back-to-back Canada and United States chairmanships of the Arctic Council which begin next year.

A North American chair of the Arctic Council

At the May 2013 ministerial meeting, Canada will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental group formed in 1996 that includes representatives from all eight Arctic nations and 6 indigenous groups, four of which have members in Alaska. Then in 2015, the United States will assume the responsibility of Chair of the Arctic Council. The two countries should, and likely will, partner closely during their respective chairmanships. I have repeatedly stressed the importance of a close North American partnership during this time: America should act as Canada's "wingman" during its chairmanship, and in 2015, Canada as America's wingman. The Alaska Arctic Policy Commission's deliberations and recommendations will be vital in assuring that Alaska makes the most of this partnership. It's fitting and timely that the Institute of the North is holding an August 14th workshop (participation by invitation only, but observers welcome) on Arctic Council strategic planning, including a luncheon speech from the U.S. Senior Arctic Official (our lead at the Arctic Council), Julia Gourley. For my part, I concur with PNWER's Arctic Caucus forum, where leaders from the Yukon, NWT and Alaska agreed that the focus for both North American chairs should be on economic development and sustainable communities in the North.

Alaska must justify share of federal offshore oil royalties

Alaska will benefit from offshore oil development through jobs and throughput oil in our legacy pipeline; but, alarmingly, as it stands, Alaska would receive $0 in royalties for any oil produced beyond 6 miles offshore.

I support Senator Murkowski's and Senator Begich's efforts to secure through Congress a slice of the offshore oil royalty pie for Alaska, since offshore development will be an additional unfunded mandate and responsibility upon our people, our infrastructure and our environment. In 2006 Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas won a 37.5-percent share of federal royalties from lease sales and development off their shores – now is it Alaska's turn? Yes!

Alaska must justify significant oil royalty revenue from development in federal waters off our coast as this is arguably the single most important federal policy initiative to Alaskans in decades. I encourage all Alaskans to join in this effort – it is Alaska's future.

Market the Arctic

The need for investment in Arctic infrastructure is paramount. The state can't afford to pay for all of the Arctic infrastructure that's needed – we need the federal government and private sector to contribute significantly and with precision.

As for our federal counterparts, they aren't likely to significantly contribute to what's needed until the Arctic "plays in Peoria," until America as a whole better understands the importance of the Arctic to us all.

What can Alaska do to awaken the American people and Congress to the immeasurable value of America's Arctic? The Month of the Arctic – the Institute of the North's Week of the Arctic August 13-18 and the Arctic Imperative Summit August 24-27 – is certainly a very good start.