New Arctic policy has big implications for agencies


Ten days before leaving office, President Bush issued a new Arctic region policy that acknowledges the security, economic and environmental implications of melting ice at the North Pole and sets the stage for increasing responsibilities at a number of agencies, including the departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security, Interior and Commerce.

Bush signed national security and homeland security presidential directives implementing the changes on Jan. 9.

“This has implications for all of the departments,” said Scott Borgerson, visiting fellow for ocean governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. The policy, which has been in the works for years, is overdue, he said.

The polar ice cap is shrinking at a much higher rate than scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted just four years ago. The implications for security, trade, energy production and the environment are tremendous, Borgerson said. For example, melting ice is opening access to oil and gas deposits and creating shipping shortcuts between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The new policy states six objectives:

  • Meet national security and homeland security needs.
  • Protect the Arctic environment and conserve biological resources.
  • Ensure natural resource management and economic development are environmentally sustainable.
  • Strengthen international institutions among the eight Arctic nations.
  • Involve the Arctic’s indigenous communities in decisions.
  • Enhance scientific monitoring and research.

The policy states unequivocally that the United States will protect its interests in the region with or without allies. “These interests,” it declares, “include such matters as missile defense and early warning; deployment of sea and air systems for strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime presence, and maritime security operations and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight.”

The policy also notes, “Human activity in the Arctic region is increasing and is projected to increase further in coming years. This requires the United States to assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its Arctic interests and to project sea power throughout the region.”

Borgerson, who supports the overall policy, characterized this wording an unfortunate “poke in the eye” to Canada, which views much of the Northwest Passage as an internal waterway, not an international one. “There’s nothing really here that the Canadians didn’t already know,” regarding the U.S. position on the Arctic, he said, but saying it so bluntly creates diplomatic problems.

In her confirmation hearing Tuesday, Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton said, “I believe that the issues of the Arctic are one of those long-term matters that will dramatically affect our commercial, our environmental, and our energy futures,” according to an account by KTUU television, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage.

Clinton told Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that resolving boundary disputes with other nations was critical. “We’ve got to figure out where our boundaries are if people start drilling in areas that are ice-free most of the year, and we don’t know where they can and can’t drill, and whether we can,” Clinton said, according to the KTUU account.

The implications of the new policy are especially great for the Coast Guard, which is responsible for safeguarding U.S. waters. In an interview at the National Press Club early last year, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen declined to discuss his views about climate change, but said, “All I know is there’s water where it didn’t use to be, and it’s my responsibility to deal with that.”

The Coast Guard’s aging fleet of icebreaking ships has long been a concern for the service. It has two 30-year-old icebreakers, one of which has been out of service for most of the last year. It also has one ship devoted to scientific research that has some ice-breaking capability.

Borgerson said the new policy gives the Coast Guard the ammunition it needs to make its case to receive funding for more icebreakers. Last year, military commanders at Pacific Command, Northern Command and Transportation Command all signed a letter to the Joint Chiefs requesting their support for the Coast Guard’s request for icebreaker funding.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also has lobbied for greater Coast Guard presence in Arctic waters. In a letter to President Bush last March, she said, “At the same time as our icebreakers are hobbled by years of hard service and lack of maintenance funds, more freighters and cruise ships than ever before are traveling through the Arctic.”