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Thawing ice creates potential opportunities, disasters for Arctic states
Diplomatic Pouch / August 24, 2015

By Larry Luxner

As climate change melts glaciers and new shipping lanes in the Arctic open up, an entire region of the world that never got much attention is suddenly grabbing headlines.

This past April, the United States began a two-year term as chair of the eight-member Arctic Council, which also includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. On Aug. 18, Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation hosted a conference on “Examining Arctic Opportunities and Capabilities.”

Leading the discussion was Robert J. Papp Jr., a retired Coast Guard admiral and the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic. Other speakers included Geir Haarde, Iceland’s ambassador to the United States; Isaac Edwards, senior counsel for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Luke Coffey of Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

By coincidence, the Heritage event took place the day after President Barack Obama gave Royal Dutch Shell the green light to drill for oil and gas in the undersea Arctic beneath Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. The controversial move escalates a battle with the same environmentalists who cheered Obama’s actions on climate change earlier this year.

Papp, who spent much of his Coast Guard career in the waters off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, said Shell has “gone through a legal process” to buy leases and acquire all necessary permits from the Department of the Interior.

“What this administration has done is try to find a balance,” he said in response to a question from the Diplomatic Pouch. “It’s been focused on climate change and looking for renewable resources, but the reality is they’re also pragmatic. We’re going to need fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, and companies in that business have the right to explore in a safe and sustainable manner. I think Shell is as prepared as they can be, and I wish them luck, because we don’t want to deal with adverse consequences.”

Papp, noting that the nation’s capital sits 3,500 miles southeast of Barrow, Alaska, said a big part of his job is raising awareness about the Arctic Council, which was created by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996 with a focus on promoting cooperation, sustainable development and environmental protection among its eight member countries.

“The American people are physically and culturally disconnected from the Arctic, and we need to change that,” he said. Since 2013, the Arctic Council’s secretariat has been based in Tromsø, Norway — the world’s third-largest community north of the Arctic Circle after the Russian cities of Murmansk and Norilsk. Among the council’s landmark projects, said Papp, are a 2004 climate impact assessment, a 2009 shipping assessment, a 2011 maritime search-and-rescue agreement, and a 2013 accord on marine oil spill preparedness and response.

If Papp harbors any doubts about climate change, they certainly didn’t come across in his speech at Heritage.

“In 1976, when I crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time and visited the city of Kotzebue, there was ice as far as I could see from the shoreline to the horizon,” the admiral said. “Thirty-six years later, when I went back in 2010 to refamiliarize myself with the Arctic, I flew into Kotzebue in a Gulfstream, and as I looked down the shore at the horizon, there was no ice to be seen whatsoever. That lack of ice is the new normal, and we need to be ready for it.”

Haarde acknowledged that Iceland stands to benefit economically from the melting of polar ice, even if it has adverse effects on global warming.

“If the sea routes open to this extent, we might be in quite a unique situation for trade and shipping,” he said. “Of course this could be 10, 20 or 50 years into the future, but one has to start planning. Unlike Alaska, we actually do have the infrastructure now to deal with this: we have a developed economy, airstrips, international runways and ports. This would be a very exciting development for us if it were to materialize.”

He added: “Countries known to think decades ahead, like China and Singapore, have started to look at this. Maybe this explains why the Chinese have taken such an interest in Iceland.”

But Haarde strongly criticized a July 2015 pledge by the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway to keep their fishing vessels away from of a 1.1 million-square-mile exclusion zone in the central Arctic Ocean. The agreement, signed in Oslo, takes the long view that once pack ice has retreated, that zone — which is now frozen over year-round — could be exposed to overfishing, eventually depleting stocks of Arctic cod and other commercially lucrative species.

“Fishing is a very important industry in Iceland and other Arctic countries, and it needs to be done in a sustainable way,” Haarde said. “That’s how we run our fisheries, based on a scientific, sustainable basis. We were disappointed when the so-called Arctic Five got together and agreed on an arrangement for non-polar fishing. There was no need to exclude Iceland. We should have been included, and we’d still like to be included.”

Heritage’s Coffey said it’s impossible to discuss the Arctic without talking about security — and you can’t talk about security without discussing Russia.

“I suspect the Kremlin will use a forum like the Arctic Council to drive an agenda, which is unfortunate because the Arctic is one area where the U.S. and Russia can and should cooperate,” he said. “Basically we have a 21st-century Russia with 19th-century ambitions driving a lot of [President Vladimir] Putin’s policies toward the Arctic. It’s a way to rally the public around the flag with very low risk, because they have half of the world’s Arctic territory inside their national borders, so they can get away with it.”

Coffey said Russia plans to invest $3.8 billion in the region, and that it is rapidly militarizing the Arctic; the Russian Defense Ministry recently announced plans to build 13 aerodromes and 10 radars in the north.

“It’s their business, but we have to question what its true motives really are. A lot of this military equipment is dual-use. NATO is divided on this issue, and in its 2010 strategic concept, the word ‘Arctic’ is literally not found in that document. That’s because there’s internal divisions between Canada and Norway,” he said. “Until this is resolved, NATO isn’t going to play an active role, which is unfortunate because NATO is responsible for a lot of the territory above the Arctic Circle.”

But on that note, Iceland’s Haarde said it’s best not to “mix the drinks.”

“In spite of all the differences with Russia and the problems we have as a result of what has happened in Crimea, let’s keep Arctic issues separate and see if we can cooperate,” said the ambassador. “It would be completely pointless to leave out the biggest Arctic country of all. It becomes an exercise in futility if they’re not included.”

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