Under the cover of the 2016 election season, the Obama administration has been busy crafting a new Arctic policy that will have significant environmental, economic, and national security ramifications.
It is likely to be left incomplete, with final decisions being left for the next administration to consider in 2017. A few signs of its development have emerged recently. Although it has been overshadowed by electoral politics, the new US Arctic policy is worthy of public consideration, as it will likely shape the business and political climate in the region for decades to come.
There are three apparent objectives this policy. First, the government will seek to adequately protect the Arctic environment, particularly in Alaska. Second, the US will attempt to bolster the economy by taking full advantage of the region’s potential for hydrocarbon development. Third, the US will re-establish itself militarily in the region by placing strategic assets in Alaska. The challenges, of course, will be to reconcile the conflicts of interest among these objectives and to pass the relevant legislation in Congress.
The political divide between the energy industry and environmental activism is not new, and the Arctic has long been a battleground for these two interest groups. Additionally, national security expenditures in the region are often not hot-button topics outside Alaska or the relevant Pentagon and Congressional offices. Since Alaska is not a swing state in most presidential elections, its political battles are often fought without much national political coverage. This has traditionally allowed the federal government to make legislative and executive decisions concerning the Arctic without much concern for political blowback.
The energy & environment dilemma
The US environmentalist movement has begun to engage the American public on matters concerning the Arctic climate. A recent nationwide poll on attitudes toward energy and environmental issues found that 55% of voters are opposed to any expansion of fossil fuel development on federal lands, including those in Alaska. Furthermore, the poll found that 59% of respondents would be in favor of the Obama administration placing permanent protections against drilling activity in both the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.
While Obama could certainly cement his climate legacy by permanently banning oil & gas development on the 60% of Alaska’s land that is publicly owned, he is very unlikely to do so. The president openly acknowledges that the shift to natural gas from coal has been the main reason for declining US carbon emissions and that oil & gas procurement (including from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) is necessary for the nation’s energy security and economic well-being.
Under Obama’s leadership, the White House seems to be taking a realist view of energy development in the United States, and it is unlikely that the administration will end new leasing of oil & gas in the Arctic despite national public pressure to the contrary. In Alaska, support for oil & gas development is high, especially among some Native American consortiums like the Arctic Iñupiat, which recently joined the Arctic Coalition of organizations that want to continue hydrocarbon development in the far north.
The state government derives tremendous revenues from taxes and royalties paid by the oil & gas industry. Governor Bill Walker recently filed the formal request to the Department of the Interior to keep the Beaufort & Chukchi Seas included in the 2017-2022 federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) lease sale program. If approved, Alaska’s offshore oil and gas fields would be fair game for hydrocarbon developers through 2022. These leases would become more attractive investments for exploration as commodities rise and ice melts.
There are also more concrete reasons for the present and future administrations to maintain Arctic oil & gas development. According to an engineering study by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the level of throughput (the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline on a given day) in the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline must be approximately 550,000 barrels per day (bpd), and no less than 350,000 bpd. Below 550,000 bpd, freezing can occur in the pipeline during the winter months, putting all of Alaska’s energy production infrastructure at risk of shutting down. The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline can be operated at a minimum throughput level of 350,000 bpd, but only with costly, continuously ongoing maintenance to keep the risk of failure at an acceptable level.
Ideally, throughput levels would be in the millions of barrels per day. But the 2014 daily average was 513,000 bpd, and the rate has been declining for the past several years. The present administration is very unlikely to enact environmental regulations that would effectively decommission the nation’s most critical piece of Arctic energy infrastructure.
National security in the Arctic
Amy Pope, Vice Chair of the White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee, recently declared that “the Arctic is peaceful, stable, and free from conflict, and we intend to keep it that way.” That is, in a sentence, the core of US national security interests in the Arctic. However, Washington will need to upgrade its national security apparatus to meet its stated goal. Although the Obama administration is soon to be replaced, it is already laying the groundwork for the next administration to rebuild security infrastructure in the region. The first step is acquiring icebreakers.
Icebreaking in the Arctic is the mission of the US Coast Guard, which currently operates just one vessel capable of breaking ice year round, which is slated for retirement in 2019, and one vessel only capable during some parts of the year. Russia, by comparison, has 41 polar icebreakers in service.
In the eyes of the Navy and Coast Guard policy community, the US desperately needs new icebreakers. But there are no plans right now to build any, despite the fact that the acquisition process would likely take 10 years. Another option is to lease icebreakers from a foreign country, such as Finland, although it is currently unclear if that idea is being given any serious consideration in government.
Alaska is both a risky and advantageous piece of American geography. Its austere climate creates unique challenges for the military, but its position is an ideal launching point for missions across the entire northern hemisphere. Air Force planes stationed in Alaska can reach both Europe and East Asia with relative ease, while assets based in the lower 48 require extensive refueling to reach the same operational theaters.
Alaska’s geostrategic importance was recently reflected in the decision to base a two new squadrons of F-35 “Lightning II” Joint Strike Fighters at Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base. The two squadrons will be based there once they are delivered in 2020, and will provide the USAF with air superiority across virtually the entire northern hemisphere. The combined sea and air power combination of effective icebreaking and air superiority capabilities offered by future Alaskan military assets should ensure US preponderance in the region for several decades.
The new Arctic policy
The Obama administration has come under some serious criticism during its tenure, but its most enduring decision may eventually be the Arctic Policy that is being designed now. While most of the implementation will be up to future administrations, the administration appears to have inconspicuously prepared the United States for continued effective leadership in the Arctic region. The official details of US Arctic Policy may never come to light, but recent developments show that there is a comprehensive policy in development for environmental conservation, secure and profitable energy development, and a potent national security presence in the Arctic. Overall, this is a positive sign that America is actively and responsibly working to preserve its role as a global leader and sole superpower.