The United States will take over Friday as chair of the Arctic Council, the international body of representatives from eight nations with territory in the region. U.S. delegates they’ll focus on the impact of climate change on the Arctic and its peoples. And despite divisions between some members, observers say they don't believe council’s work will be disrupted.
Fran Ulmer can speak from experience about the importance of the Arctic Council and its work on finding solutions to problems in the region.
“It’s been hugely helpful in getting the Arctic nations to work together on things like the two agreements that were just adopted over the past two years: the search-and-rescue agreement, and the responding-to-oil-spills agreement,” she said.
Ulmer served as lieutenant governor and later as chancellor of the University of Alaska-Anchorage before appointed in 2010 to the national Commission on the BP Horizon Oil Spill and then in 2011 as chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
She says it’s important to understand the significance of the United States assuming the Arctic Council chairmanship, because of the organization’s research on climate change and its impact on this region. And the growing importance of that work as Arctic nations ramp up development of oil and other resources here.
“To the extent that people are thinking long-term about where’s energy going to come from,” she said, “the Arctic is one of the places where it is highly likely that it will be a supply source – whether it’s from Russian waters or Canadian waters or U.S. waters or Norwegian waters.
The opportunity to exploit those resources is due in part to melting Arctic sea ice.
“Last week, we had the lowest winter sea-ice extent ever recorded in the Arctic,” Ulmer said.
And that in turn has opened up previously inaccessible offshore areas to oil and gas exploration and development.
“Thirty percent of the undiscovered gas in the world is in the Arctic region,” she said. “Thirteen percent of the undiscovered oil is projected to be in the Arctic region.”
Ulmer says Arctic Council member nations have worked together to develop plans and policies to deal with the tricky business of developing Arctic oil resources, while at the same time researching the impacts of burning those fossil fuels on the region’s climate and peoples. She says the council cooperates, because its members understand that they’re all in it together.
“If there’s a spill someplace in the Arctic, because of Arctic Ocean currents,” she said, “it’s going to affect wildlife, it’s going to affect fish, it’s going to affect shorelines – not just in one country, but in other countries.”
But some observers believe international tensions are now creating divisions among Arctic Council members.
They note that Secretary of State John Kerry will lead the U.S. delegation at the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting that convenes Friday morning in Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. But his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, won’t be there, reportedly as a tit-for-tat response to snubs by the Canadians, who didn’t attend an Arctic Council meeting last year in Moscow to protest Russian aggression in Ukraine and Crimea.
“There’s no way to de-link completely the Arctic from geopolitics in the world,” said Lawson Brigham, a UAF distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy and a retired strategic planner for the Coast Guard.
Brigham says he doesn’t think the dispute will disrupt this weekend’s meeting. He says the Arctic Council specifically prohibited itself from involvement in military matters when it was formed in 1996. And he thinks it’s unlikely that Russian saber-rattling in the Arctic will lead to hostilities, because that would be bad for business.
“The notion that we’re headed to some kind of regional conflict in the Arctic – I don’t buy it,” Brigham said. “Because all of the countries, including our Russian friends, want to sell natural resources to the planet.”
But Matt Felling, an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, says Russia’s military buildup in the region isn’t going unnoticed.
“We’ve seen them moving military aircraft. We’ve seen them boosting military muscle in the Arctic, ...” he said.
Felling says Murkowski believes that shouldn’t deter the Arctic Council from its work. He says Russia’s involvement with the council is essential, because it’s the biggest Arctic nation with the biggest stake in developing the region’s resources.