As ice melts and technology improves, interest in Arctic grows

Russian, Canadian and U.S. ships rendezvous near the North Pole.
Russian, Canadian and U.S. ships rendezvous near the North Pole. Steve Wheeler/US Coast Guard/MCT

WASHINGTON — As declining sea ice and better mapping and technology make the Arctic more accessible, nations with interests there — including the United States — are beginning to stake their claims on the resource-rich region.

Russia planted a flag on the seafloor below the North Pole in 2007. Denmark announced this week that it would ask the United Nations to recognize the North Pole as an extension of Greenland, its territory. The U.S. sent a secretary of state to a meeting of eight Arctic nations earlier this month for the first time, a sign that Americans also have their eye on the region's potential resources.

"This region matters greatly to us," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after the conference in Nuuk, Greenland.

The U.S. is committed to the Arctic Council's mission as well as the challenges the Arctic faces, Clinton said, including possible resource development.

Although numerous logistical challenges to oil and gas exploration in the region remain, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that as much of a third of the world's undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil may be in the offshore Arctic, in relatively shallow water.

"The melting of sea ice, for example, will result in more shipping, fishing and tourism, and the possibility to develop newly accessible oil and gas reserves," Clinton said. "We seek to pursue these opportunities in a smart, sustainable way that preserves the Arctic environment and ecosystem."

The U.S. has been slow to recognize not just the importance of the Arctic but also the implications of the melting ice and what it means for commercial and economic interests, said John Bellinger III, who was a senior adviser to Condoleezza Rice when she was the secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. Other nations have been far more focused on the region while the U.S. has been distracted by other events.

"Secretary Clinton attending a summit of Arctic Council members at a time when so many other things are going on in the world does demonstrate that the U.S. understands the importance of the Arctic," Bellinger said.

Clinton took with her to Greenland Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who's long worked to remind other officeholders that the U.S. is an Arctic nation and its foreign policy should reflect that. Murkowski's presence was also the first time that anyone from Congress had attended such a gathering.

"It's been frustrating getting anyone's attention on Arctic issues, but Hillary Clinton is one who I could engage on this topic," Murkowski said.

Murkowski said she first got Clinton's attention on Arctic matters long before the former first lady was the secretary of state. Several senators, including Clinton, visited Alaska one summer a few years ago, and Murkowski and her husband hosted them at a salmon barbecue.

It was obvious that Clinton's trip to some of Alaska's Arctic regions had inspired her, Murkowski said. Clinton got it, Murkowski said, including the region's strategic importance to the U.S. Since then, the two women have had regular policy discussions about the region.

In Greenland, the eight countries — the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland — signed several accords, including a pact to cooperate on search and rescue missions in a region that has minimal resources for such expeditions. The agreement is recognition that more people will be in the area, whether they're on cruise ships, cargo planes or oil rigs.

They also laid the groundwork for a multi-nation task force to address oil and gas development in the Arctic. Since last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, many nations have re-evaluated the safety of offshore drilling, and the U.S. is considering how to proceed in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska's northern coast.

Environmental groups such as Oceana have been keeping close tabs on potential oil and gas development in the region, and they think it's crucial for the U.S. to take the lead in Arctic matters. The Arctic is changing rapidly and is more sensitive to the impacts of climate change than other regions are, said Chris Krenz, the lead Arctic project manager for Oceana's office in Juneau, Alaska.

"The Arctic is a very spectacular place," Krenz said. "It really captures the imagination of people."

Many of those who attended the council meeting, including Clinton, called for the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty. The treaty, which governs worldwide navigation rights and resources such as fisheries, also provides a framework for settling territorial claims in the Arctic. Although the United States participated in the negotiations that resulted in the treaty, conservatives, led by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., have blocked Senate ratification since 1994.

The U.S. and Canada, which are cooperating on research to develop better maps of the Arctic, have their own disputes over boundaries, Murkowski said. And there are differences between the countries about navigational access through the Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America.

Even non-Arctic nations have an eye on the potentially resource-rich prize. Some non-Arctic nations — such as China — have been exploring the region. No one is quite certain what the Chinese want, Murkowski said.

"That concerns me," she said. "If we don't (sign the treaty) ... we have no right to lay claim or to make a case for it."


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