Category Archives: Arctic

Alaska Sen. Murkowski Grills Clinton on U.S. Arctic policy

Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton with Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton with Sen. Lisa Murkowski

By Betty Mills, Fairbanks Daily News
WASHINGTON — Incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged cooperation in implementing a comprehensive new Arctic policy that could have ramifications for oil and gas development and shipping in the region. Clinton gave the assurances to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, at a confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The comments came as the Bush administration released its long-awaited new directive on the Arctic, the first update of the United States’ Arctic policy since 1994.   “President-elect Obama and I see that as one of those areas that offers a chance for cooperation,” Clinton told Murkowski. “I think you will have a very receptive audience at the State Department in our administration.”

Clinton, who worked in a Southeast Alaska fish processing plant one summer during college, said she is aware of the rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic.  “When I heard that cruise ships are now going into Point Barrow, I was shocked,” said Clinton, who had been well-briefed on Arctic issues before the hearing. Clinton agreed with Murkowski that Senate ratification of the long-stalled United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is a top priority. The treaty provides a legal framework to govern the Arctic. It has been approved by all major maritime nations except the United States.

The 1982 Law of the Sea treaty has been considered by the Senate for many years but has been blocked by a small group of conservatives who are worried that it would limit U.S. sovereignty. Proponents claim the treaty will increase the maritime mobility of American forces around the world and will secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas that contain natural resources.
The U.S. and Canada have an unresolved boundary in the Beaufort Sea. The new Arctic policy was prepared by officials at several federal agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. The directive takes into account several recent developments, including new national policies on homeland security and defense and the effects of climate change and increased human activity in the Arctic.  The document states that it is U.S. policy to do the following:

• Meet national security and homeland security needs relevant to the Arctic region.

• Protect the Arctic environment and conserve its biological resources.

• Ensure that natural resource management and economic development in the region are environmentally sustainable.

• Strengthen institutions for cooperation among the eight Arctic nations: the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation and Sweden.

• Involve the Arctic’s indigenous communities in decisions that affect them; and

• Enhance scientific monitoring and research into local, regional and global environmental issues.

Murkowski has been working with administration officials for months to update the Arctic policy. She was gratified that the document was finally released as one of the outgoing administration’s final policy initiatives. “Few areas in the world have experienced such rapid change and the new Arctic policy gives the U.S. an opportunity to be an active participant and leader in this vital region,” Murkowski said.

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Bush Releases Comprehensive Report on Artic by Tom Kizzia

Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) listens to President Bush Address Artic Issues

Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) listens to President Bush Address Artic Issues

In one of its last official acts, the Bush administration released a comprehensive policy Monday for the Arctic regions, addressing the growing number of boundary, resource development and shipping disputes in the fast-changing waters north of Alaska’s coast.  The Bush presidential directive takes no startling new policy turns, but it does emphasize the outgoing president’s support for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, an international agreement blocked by some conservative Republicans.

The directive asserts that the Northwest Passage through Canada is an international shipping route and calls for building up the U.S. presence in the region to protect strategic interests, including homeland security.  The policy talks about promoting responsible energy development and preparing for the risks associated with increased marine traffic through the region as summer ice retreats. The policy also calls for increased study and monitoring of the effects of climate change in the Arctic.

“The United States is an Arctic nation, with varied and compelling interests in that region,” the policy declares. Among the commitments: to “involve the Arctic’s indigenous communities in decisions that affect them.”  The policy statement was praised by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the only member of Congress to participate in work on the plan over the past two years. Murkowski supports ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, saying it would give the U.S. a legal claim to oil and gas resources on the northern continental shelf.

But the directive drew criticism from Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska Anchorage marine biology professor who tried to have the policy delayed until Barack Obama takes office. He said the policy should commit to reducing greenhouse gases, not merely talk about studying the causes of climate change in the Arctic.

Overall, he said, the policy is tilted toward “commercial and military exploitation” of the area. “This may have been George Bush’s last gift to the oil industry,” he said.  On the other hand, Bush’s public support may prevent the Law of the Sea from turning into a partisan battle between Obama and conservatives who fear the treaty would surrender too much American sovereignty to hostile international bureaucrats. “By having a Republican administration say some of those things, it may help move that agenda along,” said Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, who worked with the State Department and other federal officials on the policy.

A Murkowski spokesman said Monday she is optimistic this year about approval of the Law of the Sea treaty, which was drawn up in 1982 and has been ratified by more than 150 countries.  The Bush policy on the Arctic was reported near completion last summer. But it vanished off the radar during the height of the presidential campaign as Republican John McCain came under fire from some conservatives for his past support for the treaty.

The breadth of the 11-page directive’s concerns, and its public release, show how far Arctic concerns have risen as a priority, Treadwell said.  He said the last time the government drew up an Arctic policy was 1994, and it remained a closely held document only summarized publicly in a press release. The Arctic policy before 1994, he said, was top secret, even from most policy-makers, presumably because its major concerns were deployment of nuclear submarines under the polar ice.

Steiner said he supported some elements of the policy, including its call for a risk assessment study of Arctic shipping. But he said he would rather see maritime commerce in the Arctic curbed while such studies are under way, rather than promoted. He also was concerned about increased use of icebreaking ships in the Arctic, saying that might speed the loss of sea ice habitat. Funding for new ice breakers also has been opposed by fiscal conservatives in Congress. The policy refers generally to investing in “infrastructure to support shipping activity, search and rescue capabilities,” and other measures. Treadwell said new icebreakers will be important not only for research but to “project the U.S. presence” in a time of growing traffic. The U.S. is not in a position to unilaterally push a moratorium on shipping, he said.

“With that ocean opening up, lord knows what kinds of ships are going to show up,” Treadwell said. The policy explicitly rejects proposals for a new international treaty among the eight Arctic nations, saying current cooperative arrangements are preferable to the kind of treaty that governs the Antarctic.–Anchorage Daily News

America’s Artic Responsibility by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)

Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wtih President Bush

Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wtih President Bush

It didn’t garner a lot of public attention, but the White House recently released an important new policy statement dealing with an area of the world starting to gain the high level attention it deserves — the Arctic.

In a joint National Security Council-Homeland Security Presidential Directive, President Bush called for enhanced security, increased environmental protection, sustainable energy development, international scientific cooperation and greater involvement of indigenous people in the Arctic. Our Arctic Policy was last updated in 1994, but the Arctic is vastly different today than it was 15 years ago. The administration’s updated Arctic policy recognizes the United States as an Arctic nation and details new objectives, directives and implementation for this region.

Why all the fuss about a frigid, remote region known to most Americans for Eskimos, polar bears and shifting ice floes? The answer lies in climate change and the fact environmental changes are occurring at an unprecedented rate in this region. The polar ice cap is melting and areas that have never been accessible to energy development and shipping have been opening up during the summer months, leading some to predict that one summer soon the fabled Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, might be a regular shipping route.

A more accessible Arctic Ocean will require enhanced environmental protection, navigational and marine safety measures. We must find the balance to allow for reasonable development of the vast natural resources while maintaining strong protections for the environment.  Maritime activities relating to the transportation of goods, oil and gas, tourism and research will surely increase as marine access to the Arctic Ocean increases. Marine transportation through an ice-diminished Arctic has the potential to reduce shipping routes by thousands of miles.

The distance through the Northern Sea Route reduces the Hamburg to Yokahama voyage by almost 5,000 miles. Recognizing there will be increased activity in this area represents perhaps the greatest challenge and need for international cooperation. This is action that needs to be taken now, not after a major maritime disaster occurs.

The Arctic, however, isn’t just about responsibility – it offers opportunity as well. America’s Arctic may hold the key to bringing down the cost of energy in this country and reducing our dependence on unstable foreign sources of energy. Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the Alaskan Arctic might contain more than 30 billion barrels of oil and 221 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its undiscovered reserves.

While energy production in the Arctic is vital, we also must not forget about the indigenous people of the Arctic – the Inuit, Inupiat, Athabaskan, Yupik and Saami. The dramatic changes now occurring may have a profound impact on their environment and traditional way of life. Preserving their culture, languages and subsistence lifestyle while Western civilization knocks on their door will be extremely challenging. That is why they must be involved in the political, legal and scientific decisionmaking to ensure that their voice, as the residents of the Arctic, will be heard.

When Russia planted a flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, thus seeking to claim almost half of the Arctic, it sent a resounding message to the rest of the world. While the United States is working to map our own extended Continental Shelf, we cannot lay claim to our rightful area in the Arctic until we ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Nor can we dispute other claims, such as Russia’s or Canada’s, that will likely overlap with ours. This intense interest in claiming Arctic territory is primarily driven by the quest for Arctic resources. Until recently, the resources of the Arctic were deemed too difficult and expensive to develop, but the region is now being explored and developed at an unprecedented rate.

There are some who do not see the point in joining the rest of the world in ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty. But I believe it is important for the United States to be a party to this treaty and be a player in the process, rather than an outsider hoping our interests are not damaged. We are the only maritime nation in the world that has not signed the treaty. Joining the Convention would also give current and future administrations both enhanced credibility and leverage in calling upon other nations to meet Convention responsibilities.  The new Presidential Decision Directive not only significantly improves and updates the U.S. Arctic policy, but sends the right message to the world that the Arctic is important to this nation and we stand ready to work cooperatively with the international community in this region.

While the race to claim the Arctic continues, the United States must prepare for a melting Arctic and the international implications that brings. Our northern neighbors, Canada and Russia, are continuing to move forward with their claims and development of their offshore energy resources and shipping routes.   If the United States is to be a participant and a leader in this region, it is time to step up to the plate and engage. The updated U.S. Arctic policy gives us a good road map. Congress and the executive branch need to work together to implement this policy and give the Arctic the attention it deserves.

Lisa Murkowski is a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from Alaska. She is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and hosted the eighth Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians in Fairbanks, Alaska, in August.

Drawing Lines in the Sea: Nations Stake Claims on Arctic Ocean Riches

By Jessa Gamble: Scientific American
The deepwater submersibles Mir 1 and Mir 2 (eponymous with the deorbited Russian space station and meaning “peace” or “world”) were aptly named—their deployment would stand on par with a space mission in complexity and they certainly caught the “world’s” attention. As a nuclear-powered icebreaker crunched through 10 feet (three meters) of August ice at the North Pole, Russian sailors readied the subs for their 2.5-mile (four-kilometer) descent. A hole opened in the ship’s wake, and the subs were lowered. At the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, one sub took ground samples, the ostensible purpose of the mission, while the other deposited a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag.

Moscow’s 2007 stunt was widely mocked for its ostentatious flouting of diplomatic etiquette but had its intended effect: Other countries were rattled. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper scurried to the Arctic for a sovereignty tour and the Danish science minister released preliminary findings that the North Pole was, in fact, Danish.

Roughly 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas lurk beneath the melting ice of the Arctic Ocean, and the coastal nations are eager to start drawing lines on the ocean floor. Although three fifths of the world’s other three oceans remain high seas, the Arctic will likely hold onto only two small basins designated as the common heritage of humankind. The rest will be parceled off to Norway, Denmark, Russia, Canada and the U.S.—and they’re all looking to get rich.

The rules for seabed resource claims stem from the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which allows a 230-mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zone off a nation’s coast from the low-tide mark. There is one exception: If a continental shelf juts beyond the 200-mile limit, a country’s resource claim may be extended. If such a claim is made, a selection of geologists, geophysicists and hydrographers form a committee to evaluate scientific evidence for a nation’s elongated shelf.

International treaties, steeped in precedent, do not always mesh with cutting-edge research. Newly returned from riding along on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Healy icebreaker as it surveyed the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska, Vermont Law School professor Betsy Baker reports a failure of science and law to communicate. “There are a number of terms in the law that are scientifically ambiguous,” she says. “How do you define a ‘natural prolongation’? And where is the ‘foot of a slope’?” In the Arctic, unusually broad shelves and long submarine peninsulas complicate the issue.

“You can read these phrases in different ways, but inside Denmark and Greenland there is good agreement on the resulting formulas,” says Flemming Christiansen, technical director of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. “The commission is looking into claims now from Australia and New Zealand, so their rulings should soon clarify the matter.” Most of the 150 convention signatories have a 2009 deadline to make their claims and as many as 50 coastal states could bid for an extension into their neighboring waters.

Out of the five coastal Arctic nations, only the U.S. has never ratified UNCLOS, so it will not be submitting any data to the committee. “A small number of senators resist ceding any sovereignty, afraid the big, bad U.N. is going to divvy up Arctic resources,” Baker says. “The irony is, UNCLOS is not a U.N.-run operation.”

No one is likely to start investing in expensive resource exploration and extraction if they could be evicted by an international ruling, so the outer shelves will not see development for another 30 years or so, says Baker. The challenges of drilling at three-mile (five-kilometer) depths should not be underestimated either, because existing platforms cannot be used. The ocean floor will have to house recovery complexes and the hydrocarbons may have to be transported to land via pipeline. On an ever-shifting ice pack, only the strongest reinforced rigs or drill ships can survive, and should a spill occur, cleanup would be almost impossible.

There is unexplored oil on the order of 90 billion barrels and 1.67 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, but most of the natural gas lies in the Arctic Ocean closest to Russia. The U.K.-based oil company, BP, PLC, has signed a $17-billion exploration deal with Russia in the hopes of replacing the declining output of its current fields in the North Sea.

Norway’s state-owned Statoil has cold-weather expertise with which it hopes to exploit deposits in the Barents Sea, and Canada-based Imperial Oil is among a handful of companies bidding on Canadian claims in the Beaufort Sea. “Seismic will help us determine where we might want to drill, but ultimately we won’t know if we’ve picked the wrong place until we’ve actually created a well,” says Glen McCrimmon, Imperial’s geoscience manager for the area.

Aside from already valuable commodities like oil and natural gas, the world’s next alternative energy source may lie trapped in the Arctic ice itself. Gas hydrates—a mixture of ice and methane—are found only in high-pressure and cold temperatures. Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation has bankrolled much of the research into depressurizing deposits a mile under the ocean surface. “People realized, ‘Holy cow, this stuff starts bubbling and fizzing when you get it on deck. It’s actually flammable. What the heck is it?'” says David Scott, manager of the Northern Resources Development Program for Natural Resources Canada. Gas hydrates are expected to make up a significant portion of the energy mix once existing oil fields dwindle, Scott says.

Even with the best geophysical data, there will still be political questions. The largest feature that demands negotiating is the Lomonosov Ridge, which transects the Arctic Ocean, extending 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) from Siberia to Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island. “It is possible that the Lomonosov Ridge is attached to all three,” says Jorn Skov Nielsen, deputy minister of minerals and petroleum for the Greenland Home Rule Government. “Our geological investigation may find that the North Pole area is part of Greenland’s shelf.”

Lomonosov was likely a slice of the Siberian shelf that broke off northward during the Cenozoic era when the Eurasian Basin opened up on the Arctic Ocean floor, but its current ties to Russia are disputed. Russia, Canada and Denmark may all end up claiming the ridge—and the rich resources connected to it. “It’s hard to imagine the ridge is continuous for such a long distance,” contends Benoit Beauchamp, director of the Arctic Institute of North America in Calgary, Alberta. “But it’s not rocket science to find out. Just expensive and hard to access under the ice.”

Russia Says Arctic Military Conflict is Not Possible

(Source: Daily News Bulletin; Moscow – English)trackingMOSCOW. Oct 22 (Interfax) – The talk about a possible military conflict for Arctic resources is baseless, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

“Many alarmist assessments reach almost as far as the World War III in the struggle for Arctic resources. In our view, such assessments are excessive and sometimes provocative,” Russian Foreign Ministry’s special envoy Anton Vasilyev told a press conference in Moscow on Wednesday.

The region’s problem will be solved on the basis of international law, in particular, Russia is currently preparing an application to expand the external borders of its continental shelf, said the Russian diplomat, but did not name the exact date of filing this application. Even if Russia is allowed to expand the borders of its continental shelf, it will not mean that Russia will have total sovereignty over this entire zone.

“Article 76 of the International Convention on the Law of the Sea only stipulates the sovereignty to explore the seabed and mineral resources and the exclusive right to use the seabed and mineral resources. Pipes, cables can be built over this territory no problem, without a permit of respective nations, this zone is open to navigation,” Vasilyev said.The same applies to the fishing resources, he said. “The state does not acquire any additional rights of control over the fishing resources,” he said.

Russia says it must stake claim to Arctic resources

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia must stake its claim to a slice of the Arctic’s vast resources, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council said on Friday at an unprecedented session of the council held on a desolate Arctic island.  Russia, the world’s second biggest oil exporter, is in a race with Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States for control of the oil, gas and precious metals that would become more accessible if global warming shrinks the Arctic ice cap.

Underlining Russia’s claims to the region, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev assembled the defence and interior ministers and the speakers of both houses of parliament for the meeting on the Arctic island, Russian news agencies reported.  Russia, the world’s biggest country, says a whole swathe of the Arctic seabed should belong to it because the area is really an extension of the Siberian continental shelf.

“The Arctic must become Russia’s main strategic resource base,” Russian news agencies quoted Patrushev as saying. The Council usually meets only in Moscow. Patrushev, formerly Russia’s powerful domestic spy chief, said competition from other Arctic powers was increasing and that Russia must strengthen transport links across its Arctic regions to drive development.  Canada, Norway, Russia, the United States and Denmark — which governs Greenland — all have a shoreline within the Arctic Circle, and have a 200-mile (320-km) economic zone around the north of their coastlines.

Russian officials say they are entitled to a bigger share. They base the claim on the contention that the Lomonosov ridge, a vast underwater mountain range that runs underneath the Arctic, is an extension of the Siberian continental shelf.  Under the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty, any state with an Arctic coastline that wishes to stake a claim to a greater share of the Arctic must lodge its submission with the U.N.’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Russian geologists estimate the Arctic seabed has at least 9 billion to 10 billion tonnes of fuel equivalent, about the same as Russia’s total oil reserves.  Last year a submersible with a senior Russian lawmaker on board planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed. The crew were greeted as heroes when they returned to Moscow.  Russian news agencies said the special Security Council session was held at the Nagurskaya base, Russia’s most northerly border outpost. The base is on Alexandra’s Land, part of the Russian-controlled Franz Josef archipelago.

Thaw of polar regions may need new U.N. laws

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) – A new set of United Nations laws may be needed to regulate new Arctic industries such as shipping and oil exploration as climate change melts the ice around the North Pole, legal experts said on Sunday.  They said existing laws governing everything from fish stocks to bio-prospecting by pharmaceutical companies were inadequate for the polar regions, especially the Arctic, where the area of summer sea ice is now close to a 2007 record low.   “Many experts believe this new rush to the polar regions is not manageable within existing international law,” said A.H. Zakri, Director of the U.N. University’s Yokohama-based Institute of Advanced Studies.

Fabled shipping passages along the north coast of Russia and Canada, normally clogged by thick ice, have both thawed this summer, raising the possibility of short-cut routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Dozens of legal experts are meeting in Iceland from September 7-9 to debate the legal needs of the polar regions. Other threats include a surge in tourism, with 40,000 visitors to Antarctica in 2007 against just 1,000 in 1987.  Many legal specialists believe there is a lack of clarity in existing laws about shipping, mining, sharing of fish stocks drawn northwards by the melting of ice, and standards for clearing up any oil spills far from land.

“Oil in particular and risks of shipping in the Arctic are big issues. It’s incredibly difficult to clean up an oil spill on ice,” said conference chairman David Leary of the Institute of Advanced Studies, which is organizing the conference with Iceland’s University of Akureyri.  “The question is: do we deal with it in terms of the existing laws or move to a new, more global framework for the polar regions?” he told Reuters.

“SEVERE” CONDITIONS

Some experts say the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is unclear, for instance, when it speaks of the rights of states to impose restrictions — such as compulsory pilots for ships — off their coasts in “particularly severe climatic conditions” or when ice covers the sea for “most of the year.”  With the ice receding fast, defining what conditions are “particularly severe” could be a problem, said law professor Tullio Scovazzi of the University of Milano-Bicocca.  Leary said the eight nations with Arctic territories — the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland — have so far preferred to limit discussion to existing international laws.

The WWF environmental group is among those urging a new U.N. convention to protect the Arctic, partly fearing that rising industrial activity will increase the risk of oil spills like the Exxon Valdez accident off Alaska.  “We think there should be new rules, stricter rules. We are proposing a new convention for the protection of the Arctic Ocean,” said Tatiana Saksina of the WWF.

Alaska’s state governor Sarah Palin, Republican vice presidential candidate in November 4’s U.S. election, is an advocate of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.   A boom in tourism in Antarctica meanwhile risks the accidental introduction of new species to an environment where the largest land creature is a flightless midge.  Bio-prospecting may also need new rules. Neural stem cells of Arctic squirrels could help treat human strokes, while some Arctic fish species have yielded enzymes that can be used in industrial processes.