Roundtable Brings Drilling, Arctic Threats to Senate Fore

A polar bear wearing a GPS video-camera collar lies on a chunk of sea ice in the Beaufort Sea on April 15, 2015. A tiny Alaska Native village has experienced a boom in tourism in recent years as polar bears spend more time on land than on diminishing Arctic sea ice. Alaska’s Energy Desk reports more than 2,000 people visited the northern Alaska village of Kaktovik on the Beaufort Sea in 2017 to see polar bears in the wild. Jennifer Reed of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge says the village had less than 50 visitors annually before 2011. (Anthony Pagano/USGS via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Climate change and military presence at the Arctic Circle dominated testimony Thursday at a Senate committee’s first meeting of the year on the future of energy expansion in the rapidly warming region.

The roundtable before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was organized by Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who led the charge last year to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.

Though Murkowski had been scheduled this week to develop guidance for these Arctic drilling projects, the meetings with the Bureau of Land Management were canceled due to the ongoing partial government shutdown.

Forging ahead on the topic, Murkowski asked a skeleton crew of senators this morning to address whether the U.S. has “stepped up to its role” in the region on both an economic and environmental front.

“I think most nations would suggest, no, we have not,” Murkowski said. “Whether it’s our policies, our level of engagement or working to ensure we are responsive as a nation when it comes to developments in this emerging area.”

Inuuteq Holm Olsen, the minister and head of representation for Greenland at the Danish Embassy, was one of several panelists who appeared to support the senator’s sentiments.

Pointing to America’s history with Greenland and other Arctic Circle stakeholders, Olsen told lawmakers that the U.S. interest in the Arctic has been largely one-dimensional since World War II, a time when the primary focus for the United States was to stop Nazis from gaining access to weather and radar towers in Arctic terrain.

The U.S. does not have a consulate in Greenland, and with expanding militarization in the Northwest Passage by Russia and China, Olsen said the time has come for the U.S. to have direct talks with Greenland.

Olsen touted Greenland’s ability to serve as both diplomatic and environmental “buffer” to the United Sates, and said talks could also open up commercial possibilities and enhance Greenland’s role in a more globalized economy.

Greenland remains open to negotiations, Olsen added, even as more isolationist paths — in particular the decision by President Donald Trump to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord — run contrary to the fight against climate change around the globe and in particular the Arctic.  

 “We want to see U.S. engagement, but we aren’t interested in doing business with countries who aren’t interested in doing business with us,” Olsen said. “But we are interested in doing business with the U.S.” 

One example of welcome aid, Olsen noted, would be funding from the Department of Defense for for a dual civilian and military-use airport.

Heather Copley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is in the world’s best interest for countries to form mutual partnerships as rising global temperatures reshape the Arctic Circle.

Though the region is considered “low tension” now, interest in the area will multiply as ice melts cause trade routes to open. 

“On Tuesday, the National Intelligence Strategy Report indicated that Russian efforts to increase influence in the region are likely to continue and may conflict with multiple U.S. goals in the region,” Copley said.

She noted that Russia and China have flaunted their competitive streak everywhere else in the world but are “silent” on the Arctic for now — that may be a strategy.

A more diplomatic strategy was put in place at the end of the Cold War, but Copley said establishing competitive and cooperative relationships between the U.S., China and Russia is the challenge today.

“We can’t hide in low tension or only exist in military competition,” Copley said. “We have to make bold diplomatic choices. … You need a senior [official] to wake up every day who emphasizes these ideas.”

More than heading off potential war games, cooperation in the region means clearer guidelines can finally be established around oil and gas development restrictions, a key concern for a region that is quickly losing sea ice.

“We need to discuss the rapid change of the Arctic region,” said Victoria Herrmann, president of the Arctic Institute. “We need to discuss clean energy for the region and about providing technical resources for communities to adapt to impacts of climate change.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that 95 percent of the oldest sea ice in the Arctic has melted, and warming trends will only accelerate that.

“The Greenland ice sheet is perhaps at a tipping point and permafrost is warming at a rate we didn’t think possible,” Herrmann said.

Kirsti Kauppi, ambassador of Finland to U.S., echoed concerns about the role climate change will have moving forward.

“We are obviously an Arctic country, and it is self-evident that the Arctic region is critical, and critical for the whole world,” Kauppi said. “My president usually says, if we lose the Arctic, we lose the whole globe.”

The panelists also agreed on the need to prioritize bringing indigenous and native voices to the table in Washington, or having lawmakers visit with indigenous leaders in the Arctic Circle.

“We need to work toward a more inclusive conversation that addresses low carbon transition and the climate adaptation that is necessary to save lives,” Herrmann said.

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