While Vladimir Putin’s Russia makes huge moves in the Arctic, America — an Arctic nation itself — is way behind in its own Arctic ambitions for new energy, territory and shipping routes.
Arctic oil: To find more of the oil which drives his economy, Putin’s projects in Northwest Siberia and the Russian Far East have soaked up international investment like a sponge. Exploration is moving full-speed ahead. Huge prospects off Alaska would enrich our country and fill the Alaska pipeline — but lie waiting while federal regulators make new rules and green groups do battle in the courts.
Arctic shipping: With a bevy of icebreakers and no challenge to Russia’s dubious claims that the Northern Sea Route lies within internal waters of Russia, it has captured the initial market for Arctic shipping between Asia and Europe and is charging hundreds of thousands of dollars per voyage for icebreaker escorts. Despite the prodding of Congress, the U.S. has made no plans to promote commercial shipping in the Arctic, and even new icebreakers necessary to protect the environment are far from the drawing board.
Arctic claims: Russia’s claims for new territory beneath the Arctic Ocean cover 45 percent of the Arctic Ocean floor, and reach to the North Pole. The U.S. has prepared claims, but can’t make them while the Senate delays consideration of the Law of the Sea treaty and looks at no other legal route for U.S. claims. All that new Russian sea floor could soon be off limits to international scientists studying everything from the history of our planet to climate change to biological diversity.
America should be very wary of Putin’s Arctic moves, but certainly not surprised. In 2011, I attended an Arctic conference in Arkhangelsk, Russia, with Putin who told us Russia was ready to pounce on Arctic oil and gas development and shipping.
His country went ahead, and, despite sanctions, a recent oil discovery in Russia’s Kara Sea region of the Arctic Ocean suggests that Russia may have tapped one of the largest oil reserves in the world, potentially larger than the Gulf of Mexico.
Here at home, America’s efforts to explore in our Arctic are being bogged down by red tape, delays and legal snafus. Producers in Alaska have been left on the sideline in spite of purchasing offshore leases for billions nearly a decade ago. It is estimated offshore Alaska holds 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Over 90 percent of these resources are located in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, north of Alaska, where drilling is on hold.
Luckily, there are relatively easy fixes to this situation.
First, for economic security and national security, Obama and the new Congress should make sure the U.S. goes forward with Arctic offshore exploration in the summer of 2015. This is an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to push aside partisan differences and focus on an issue that provides an economic opportunity for the United States as well as ensures that the United States remains a global leader in energy exploration.
Second, the U.S. seeks to implement new Arctic regulations that will determine how we develop energy resources for years to come. Regulators would be wise to resist being prescriptive, and instead incent companies operating in the Arctic to innovate and incorporate the safest technologies possible. The Chukchi Sea is the prize, believed to hold the world’s largest untapped oil and gas resources. Companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency planning and technologies. The science shows that we can drill in the Arctic safely.
Third, a major U.S. Arctic oil discovery will enable two other decisions to catch up with Russia. Safety measures necessary for oil production will demand new icebreakers, and infrastructure including a new Arctic port in Northwest Alaska. The value of offshore real estate should force a Senate discussion of what we want, and don’t want, in law of the sea. Believe me, we do want our share of Arctic offshore territory.
The delay in U.S. Arctic development threatens America’s emerging position as a global energy leader. Delay today has huge, negative implications for America’s economic future. There’s no better time, than 2015, when the United States assumes the chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council, to show we can set the pace, leave a vacuum for Mr. Putin no more, and take the lead in the Arctic.
Mead Treadwell is the lieutenant governor of Alaska.