How Should U.S. Lead in the Arctic?

Arctic experts and policymakers gathered at a Washington, D.C. think-tank today to focus on how the U.S. might wield its leadership when it assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council next year.

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Recommendations ranged from the lofty to the concrete. David Hayes, recently the second-highest ranking official at the Interior Department, made the case for better infrastructure planning. He says climate change and the fragile Arctic environment make it vital to choose the right locations for ports, oil wells and other developments.

“If we just go project by project, as we tend to do in the United States today, we’re going to make really bad decisions,” he said, at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s what integrated Arctic management is all about. Getting a science base and getting everyone together to make sound planning decisions going forward so we don’t screw it up.”

If the U.S. can coordinate that integration at home, he says it can carry the banner for the region.  Hayes says it will take a lot of cooperation to prepare for the oil development that’s coming to the Arctic Ocean, in Russia, Greenland and possibly the United States.

“I went through the Gulf oil spill; I went through the Shell issues. And holy cow, we have got to be careful, as a world, on how this is developed,” he said.

Hayes says there’s no infrastructure to support spill response and suggests it might be time to consider international governance for oil and gas rules. He also says the United States should use the chairmanship to promote renewable energy for Arctic communities that are now mostly dependent on expensive fuel. Combination wind and diesel generators have been successful in Alaska, and Hayes says now it’s time to bring down the cost of the generators with standardized parts and better control systems.

“This is an opportunity for the United States to use its technological leadership in renewable energy to bring to the world small-scale renewable options to replace diesel and to just show, to remind everyone that the Arctic is about people,” he said.

That was a common theme at the one-day conference: Arctic policy isn’t just about conserving wildlife or exporting oil but improving life for Arctic people. Alaskan speakers, like Democratic legislator Bob Herron of Bethel, say Alaskans should be included at every level of decision-making when it comes to Arctic policy.

“We believe that northerners are Arctic experts. And our advice should be inclusive. We want it, and we’re going to strive for it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Admiral Robert Papp, the State Department’s special representative on the Arctic, says he’s been searching for a way to make the Arctic a priority for the nation, the way putting a man on the moon was in the 1960s, and building the Alaska Highway was in the 1940s.

“What I have finally concluded is perhaps it’s not defense or security related. Perhaps rather than a national imperative, what we have here is a moral imperative,” Papp said. “We all have a responsibility, an obligation to protect this area of our Earth for future progress, for the people who live there and to preserve this wonderful asset.”

The U.S. assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council after Canada hosts its last meeting in late April.