Until this past Friday, the U.S. was the only Arctic nation that lacked a formal strategy in its approach to the region. In advance of Wednesday’s Arctic Council meeting in Sweden, the Obama Administration just put forth a vague Arctic policy that seeks to take advantage of emerging opportunities in the region, while recognizing that an undisciplined approach to exploring those new opportunities could threaten national security, interests and the global good.
“Our pioneering spirit is naturally drawn to this region for the economic opportunities it presents and in recognition of the need to protect and conserve this unique, valuable and changing environment,” President Obama wrote in the opening page of the strategy. New economic opportunities in the Arctic include oil and gas exploration, new fishing territory, increased travel through previously inaccessible oceans, and even the possibility of tourism.
Environmental organizations that monitor the Arctic aren’t satisfied with the administration’s policy on the Arctic, saying it wants it both ways – to profit from the region while promising to protect it. “Rather than making vague statements about Arctic stewardship, the Obama administration should put forward real solutions, such as a cap on black carbon emissions and a moratorium on Arctic offshore oil development,” says Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, Secretary of State John Kerry is planning to sign an agreement to cooperate on marine oil pollution preparedness and response. The State Department says the agreement ensures that Arctic countries will be able to quickly and cooperatively respond to spills before they endanger lives and threaten fragile ecosystems. The theory that an agreement like this can actually protect the Arctic region from environmental harm is already being tested. The U.S. Coast guard has asked the Justice Department to investigate possible pollution violations by drilling rigs Shell deployed to explore oil off the northern coast of Alaska last year. “In the Arctic, that all-of-the-above policy is so wrong for so many reasons. There’s no demonstrated spill response policy, and the Arctic is an enormously sensitive environment,” says Erika Rosenthal of Earthjustice, who has worked on developing a policy on short-term emissions for the Arctic Council.