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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Obama-Trudeau Arctic Pact Miffs Alaskan Lawmakers

JUNEAU, Alaska (CN) - Alaska's governor and congressional delegation were less than enthused over President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's pledge to take "science-based steps" to save the Arctic from climate change.

Obama and Trudeau made a joint announcement on Thursday to lead by example in the war on climate change, including taking "science-based steps to protect the Arctic and its peoples."

The science-based steps relate to a joint plan to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and other Arctic-area environmental protections.

But Alaska's economy has long been dependent on oil and gas development and is currently feeling the crunch of a severe budget shortfall due to recent significant drops in the price of oil. This makes Alaska state and congressional lawmakers extremely sensitive to any talk of change or additional regulations for the fossil-fuel industry.

Shortly after the joint Obama-Trudeau press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Gov. Bill Walker made his opinion known

"As the United States' only Arctic region, Alaska should play a significant role in setting our nation's goals and priorities for Arctic development," Walker said. "While I appreciate the White House's continued engagement in Arctic issues, it is concerning that no Alaskans were consulted on the objectives laid out by President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau."

Obama and his administration did give a nod to consulting Alaskans in his speech. "As the first U.S. President to visit the Arctic, I saw how both of our nations are threatened by rising seas, melting permafrost, disappearing glaciers and sea ice," Obama said

The visit Obama referred to was his whirlwind 3-day Alaska trip this past September, where he spoke to attendees of the Global Leadership in the Arctic Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience - GLACIER - conference. On the trip the president also hiked to see retreating glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park, flew over the Alaska Native village of Kivalina to witness its steady drop into the no-longer-frozen sea, and danced with school children and petted sled dogs in the Kotzebue above the Arctic Circle.

During the joint speech on a sunny Washington afternoon Thursday, Trudeau said the U.S. and Canadian Arctic partnership would put "the bar higher in terms of preserving the biodiversity in the Arctic."

The leaders said their goal is to cut 40 to 45 percent of the oil and gas industry's 2012 methane emissions by 2025, from both existing and new wells, and added that the appropriate regulatory agencies in both nations will immediately begin drafting regulations.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, criticized the joint statement with statements of their own that described Obama and Trudeau's plans as too narrowly focused and lacking in input from anyone from the United States's slice of the Arctic.

"Although the joint statement makes topical reference to consultation with indigenous people and the incorporation of traditional knowledge into decision-making, it also implies unjustifiable limits that will leave Alaskans standing at the door, rather than seated at the table, on Arctic policy," Murkowski said.

She added, "The joint statement also threatens the continued development of oil and gas in the Arctic - including resources on state or Native land - and appears to give Canada at least partial veto power over our sovereign development decisions. That, to me, is simply stunning."

Both Obama and Trudeau reaffirmed existing goals of protecting 17 percent of land and 10 percent of marine areas in the Arctic by 2020, and the desire to maintain "low-impact" Arctic shipping corridors to limit environmental risks from heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from shipping in the Beaufort Sea.

However, Murkowski and Sullivan along with Walker fear what Trudeau and Obama's plans mean for Alaska's commercial shipping, fishing, and oil-and-gas exploration and development.

"The Arctic presents great opportunity for our state and our nation to prosper in a global economy. However, the way to achieve that is by greater federal investment in our state's Arctic development efforts, and not the restrictive policies that were presented today," Walker said. "It is important to consider the interests of all stakeholders in the region - whether it be focused on marine and wildlife preservation, international travel and shipping, or natural resource development. In doing so, we will ensure Alaska and the United States remain at the forefront of a flourishing Arctic economy."

The White House countered by pointing to the 2017 budget request to Congress envisioning a "future of federal-state collaboration in Alaska with a package of proposals aimed at reducing the risks of climate change and building the resilience of Alaska's communities and natural resources to climate change in a fiscally responsible way."

With a picture of Alaska's Mt. Denali on the cover, but budget request includes $400 million over 10 years for Alaska communities threatened by climate change and coastal erosion, part of a $2 billion coastal climate resilience program.

It also includes $100 million in planning and infrastructure for Alaska Native villages, including $40 million in Arctic investments through the Department of Energy, $26.8 million through the Agriculture Department for rural water and waste projects, and $17 million for water infrastructure projects through the Environmental Protection Agency.

The inclusion of a plan to tax oil companies $10 per barrel as a way to raise spending for transportation infrastructure is not sitting too well with Alaska's congressional delegation, all of whom are Republican and pro-industry.

Sullivan, the state's junior senator, met with Canadian representatives all week. He also met with Trudeau in a combined meeting with about 10 other senators.

According to Sullivan, he told Trudeau he appreciated the Arctic being highlighted in the joint statement but that it lacked "emphasis on the importance of jobs and economy" and the oil and gas industry.

State and congressional lawmakers all bemoaned not being consulted before the Obama-Trudeau joint statement.

Trudeau's visit was the first official visit by a Canadian prime minister in 20 years. He, his wife and three children arrived at the White House on Thursday morning.

The Obamas held a state dinner on Thursday night. The guest list included Murkowski's co-chair of the Senate Arctic Caucus, Sen. Angus King of Maine, but no lawmakers from the Last Frontier.

Wild-caught Alaska halibut was served in the first course, according to the White House menu.

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