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Administration Official Sees Alaska Offshore Drilling Ahead

At a recent forum, leaders laid out some interdependent energy, environmental, infrastructure, and military issues coming into play in a more navigable Arctic region.

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An Obama administration official, military leaders, and industrialists voiced agreement last week on the importance of extracting fossil fuels from offshore Alaska but differed on how much restraint to use in the name of protecting the climate and environment.

Several speakers at a 25 October forum in Washington, D. C., on “Geopolitics, Security, and Energy in the Arctic” also said building more infrastructure, such as ports and icebreakers, in the region would help with oil and gas development and the overall economy. Creating such facilities would also bolster U.S. national security and strengthen the nation’s presence in the rapidly warming, relatively conflict free, and increasingly navigable Arctic Ocean, they said.

The Arctic Energy Center (AEC) industry group and the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D. C., think tank, convened the forum at the Council’s offices. AEC officials and other sources indicated that the U.S. Department of the Interior could announce its final 2017–2022 outer continental shelf oil and gas leasing program later this year. The program could include two lease sales in Arctic waters offshore Alaska, which some scientists and environmental groups have opposed.

Time to Act?

“Some people are acting while we are pondering what might be the right thing to do,” said James Loy, a retired admiral and former deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Russia has 16 deepwater ports, more than 40 icebreakers, military bases, and energy projects north of the Arctic Circle, Loy said. He contrasted that with the United States’ two operational icebreakers and its lack of Artic deepwater ports.

Former Alaska lieutenant governor Mead Treadwell and other speakers noted that oil and gas development could provide side benefits, including investments in ports and other infrastructure. Treadwell argued that resource development efforts also motivate some scientific progress in the Arctic, including ecosystem baseline studies done by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and ecosystem baseline studies funded by the National Science Foundation. He said that if the United States retreats from the Arctic in terms of oil and gas development, some of that funding for research could disappear.

Fleet Funding

Some movement appears to be taking place regarding the U.S. icebreaking fleet.

The operational fleet currently consists of the Polar Star, a heavy polar icebreaker, and the Healy, a medium polar icebreaker. The Obama administration’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget for the Coast Guard requests $150 million for a new polar icebreaker. The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee allocated $37.6 million for an icebreaker, whereas the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee allocated $14 million. The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, however, allocated $1 billion for the polar icebreaker.

The committees will negotiate the amounts when they return to work after the November election. The State Department special representative for the Arctic, retired Adm. Robert Papp, told Eos after the forum that he considers funding for a new icebreaker the biggest priority he’d like to see by the end of the Obama administration for Arctic maritime safety and security.

Responsible Energy Development

An administration official at the forum eyed Alaska’s oil and gas as an important resource but said it needs to be developed in an environmentally responsible manner that meets climate goals.

Amy Pope, vice chair of the White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee, said that responsible development of Arctic oil and gas resources aligns with the administration’s strategy of pursuing a wide range of domestic energy resources to strengthen U.S. energy security.

“The region holds sizeable proved and potential oil and natural gas resources that will likely continue to provide valuable supplies to meet U.S. energy needs into the future,” Pope, who also serves on the White House National Security Council as deputy homeland security adviser and deputy assistant to the president, told the forum.

However, other considerations also come into play, she noted. “We commit to world-class safety and environmental standards in development decisions.” Those standards, laid out in a U.S.-Canada joint statement about the Arctic earlier this year, “include consistency with national and global climate goals and basing development and operations on scientific evidence,” Pope added.

At the forum, Treadwell took issue with Pope linking development standards to climate. He said the “most difficult phrase” Pope used was “that our leasing decisions will be consistent with our climate decisions.”

Treadwell, now president of Pt Capital, an Anchorage-based private equity firm concentrating on investment opportunities in the Arctic, said that he has advocated for cleaner energy and for mitigation and adaptation to changes in the Arctic. However, many Arctic states do offshore exploration and development, and the United States should be in the lead, he asserted.

“I don’t think it makes a hair’s worth of sense for America to retreat in the Arctic and retreat on what oil will be used,” he said.

Trust, but Verify

Despite tensions among Arctic nations, including Russia and the United States, over the Ukraine and other hot spots, these countries generally cooperate in the Arctic region, several military experts said at the forum.

“We in the Pentagon and in the Navy still see the Arctic as a low-threat environment compared to things going on in the rest of the world,” U.S. Navy Under Secretary Janine Davidson said at the forum. “That doesn’t mean we’re not keeping an eye on things and that we’re not thinking about how things are going to change over time.”

“We watch military activities with a great deal of concern, but I’ve seen nothing at this point that gives me anything to overreact on,” Papp said, noting Russia’s renovations to infrastructure elements, including airports, sensors, and communication capabilities. “Everything I’ve seen Russia doing appears to be defensive in nature, not trying to upset the balance in the Arctic.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), Administration official sees Alaska offshore drilling ahead, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO062271. Published on 31 October 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0