United States: As The Ice Melts, The White House And Coast Guard Turn Their Attention To The Arctic

Last Updated: October 15 2013
Article by Joan M. Bondareff

Administration officials have begun to engage in sufficient consultations before promulgating an implementation plan to accompany the White House's "National Strategy for the Arctic Region" (the "Strategy") as a result of their acknowledged failure to engage in such consultations before the release of the Strategy this year. Comments on the Strategy, described below, can be submitted to: Arctic@ostp.gov. The implementation plan is expected sometime this fall.

Upon announcing its Strategy on May 10, 2013, the White House Blog Posted:

"The Arctic is rapidly changing. While the Arctic region has experienced warming and cooling cycles over millennia, the current warming trend is unlike anything previously recorded. As sea ice diminishes, ocean resources are more readily accessible. This accessibility...[ has] inspired strong interest for new commercial initiatives in the region, including energy production, increased shipping, scientific research, tourism, and related infrastructure development. As an Arctic nation, the United States must be pro-active and disciplined in addressing changing regional conditions and in developing adaptive strategies to protect its interests."

The White House credited the work of twenty federal agencies, the State of Alaska, the Alaskan Native communities, and the Alaska Congressional delegation in producing the Strategy.

The Strategy, an 11-page high-level document, establishes three key priorities for the U.S. in the Arctic: 1) advance U.S. security interests; 2) pursue responsible Arctic Region stewardship; and 3) strengthen international cooperation. In executing the first priority, the Strategy refers to "intelligently evolv[ing] our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, including ice-capable platforms as needed." However, commentators have noted that there is no budget accompanying the Strategy and the Administration has not budgeted for new Arctic icebreakers.

With respect to the second priority, the Strategy calls for increased charting of the Arctic region. And with respect to the third priority, the Strategy acknowledges the need to work through the eight-member Arctic Council (comprised of the U.S., Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Finland, Russia, and Sweden), and to work towards U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In June 2013, a high-level delegation of Administration officials went to Alaska to meet with state and local officials to discuss the Strategy and its implementation. According to a June 20, 2013 report in the Alaska Journal of Commerce, "[ s]tate officials meeting with the group said they were not entirely satisfied and that the policy statement has a lot of generalities but no commitments." (T. Bradner, Alaska Journal of Commerce, "Feds visit Alaska for input on Arctic policy.")

The U.S. will take over as chair of the Arctic Council in 2015 and is seeking comments on what direction to take the Council. Comments can be submitted to the aforementioned email address listed in the introduction of this article. One of the topics is how to deal with "black carbon" from diesel engines in the surrounding Arctic nations. One possibility, suggested by Alaska Senator Mark Begich, is to replace diesel generators used by Alaska rural villages that could solve both health (asthma) and climate issues. Other potential issues are how to define eco-based management in the Arctic. The Strategy allows for an "all-of-the above" energy strategy in the Arctic, including hydrocarbon development. However, no drilling is expected in 2014, according to recent reports from the Secretary of the Interior.

U.S. State Department officials acknowledge that there is overlap between the work of the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization ("IMO"). For example, the IMO is working on a polar shipping code, which will need to be ratified by the U.S., in part, according to the same officials. These officials expect that pollution prevention from ships will be addressed at the IMO, whereas pollution from drill rigs, pipelines, and other onshore equipment will be addressed in the Arctic Council.

In the meantime, the Arctic Council, meeting in Sweden in May 2013, adopted an "Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic" (the "Agreement"). The Agreement's stated objective is to "strengthen cooperation, coordination, and mutual assistance among the Parties on oil pollution prevention and response in the Arctic in order to protect the marine environment from pollution by oil." The Agreement obligates each party to pre-position oil spill combating equipment in the Arctic; conduct a program of exercises for oil pollution response organizations and training; and develop plans and communication capabilities for responding to an oil pollution incident, among other obligations.

The Coast Guard Issues Its Own Report and Completes Arctic Oil Recovery Exercise

Simultaneous with the release of the White House's Arctic Strategy, the Coast Guard issued its own Arctic Strategy to guide the Coast Guard's efforts in the region over the next ten years. The Coast Guard's stated intent is to pursue three key objectives in the Arctic: 1) improve awareness; 2) modernize governance; and 3) broaden partnerships. Of particular importance on the policy side is the Coast Guard's recommendation to establish an Arctic Policy Board within the Department of Homeland Security, and a commitment to establish an Arctic Center of Expertise at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (pending funding availability).

With respect to critical assets, the Coast Guard acknowledges that its icebreaking capability is limited, but also states that the recent reactivation of the USCGC Polar Star will bring major icebreaking capability to the region. The Coast Guard encourages the nation to "plan for ice capable assets that can effectively carry out year-round search and rescue, environmental response, charting, scientific research, and other Arctic operations." During the summer season, the Coast Guard may forward-deploy aircraft, cutters, small boats, communication assets, personnel, and/or other resources to Barrow, Alaska, and other Arctic sites. The Coast Guard will also continue to partner with federal, state, and Native tribal representatives.

As part of its Arctic Strategy, on September 10, 2013, the Coast Guard completed a successful Arctic oil recovery exercise aboard the USCGC Healy. The exercise, conducted in the Beaufort Sea, involved air, surface, and underwater assets to simulate detection and recovery of oil from ice-strewn waters, according to the 17th U.S. Coast Guard District. The Coast Guard partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to conduct the drill.

All companies and persons interested in the Arctic should submit timely comments to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy at Arctic@ostp.gov.

A copy of the White House Strategy is available at the following link: www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/nat_arctic_strategy.pdf. A copy of the Coast Guard's Arctic Strategy may be found at the following link: www.uscg.mil/seniorleadership/DOCS/CG_Arctic_Strategy.pdf.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Joan M. Bondareff
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