Obama’s Arctic folly

Obama’s Arctic folly
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Just months away from assuming leadership of the Arctic Council, the Obama administration is in a tizzy to solidify its Arctic strategy. January in particular has been quite busy for the administration: an executive order to better coordinate U.S. Arctic policy, a proposed drilling ban in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and now a proposed leasing plan that excludes significant areas of the Arctic Ocean for development.

These actions all have two things in common. 

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First, these efforts either directly or indirectly seek to prevent, limit and stall energy development. By attempting to take ANWR off the table entirely and curtail offshore development, President Obama is restricting access to some of the world’s most prolific reserves of oil and natural gas. The area within ANWR set aside by Congress for oil and natural gas production holds an estimated 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Experts believe offshore Alaska holds 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Second, it appears none of these efforts resulted from an honest, transparent and thorough engagement with Alaskan officials and Alaska Natives. These key voices have been left off Obama’s new executive steering committee to coordinate U.S. Arctic policy. Reacting to the president’s moves on ANWR, the North Slope Borough — the largest municipality in the Alaska North Slope — remarked: “We would like to invite President Obama and Secretary [Sally] Jewell to travel to ANWR and meet with the people who actually live there before proposing these type of sweeping land designations.” Ouch. 

To cap it off, the government’s new offshore leasing plan also irked Alaskan officials who saw the move as “the same unilateral approach this administration is taking in placing restrictions on the vast energy resources,” as Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Collins skeptical of new ObamaCare repeal effort How Senate relationships could decide ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Alaska) remarked.

As the United States seeks to guide global Arctic policy, it’s safe to say that recent moves by the White House signal that energy development will not play a significant role in its strategy. This should worry Alaskans and all Americans.

For starters, shutting off access to Alaskan resources now limits our energy potential in the future. When then-President Clinton vetoed legislation in 1995 that would have allowed drilling in ANWR, opponents argued that oil production wouldn’t occur for a decade — a time in the future too far off to value. Well, 10 years later, in 2005, the United States reached its highest level of oil imports ever, at 13.7 million barrels a day.

We could have avoided this scenario had we put in place forward-looking policies. The energy abundance the lower 48 is experiencing today isn’t guaranteed to last. Policymakers need to take steps now to open new areas like ANWR and the Chukchi Sea to development to ensure a pipeline of supplies well into the future.

More concerning, however, are the decisions on the horizon the administration will make on Arctic energy. Principally, decisions to allow exploration in the Chukchi Sea this summer could affect all future decisions about Arctic offshore energy. Shell recently announced it will proceed with operations in the Chukchi this summer should the proper conditions allow, including securing permits from federal regulators. Leaseholders have spent billions of dollars and waited several years to be able to explore for resources. Further, unnecessary delays by regulators would only signal that we’re not serious about developing U.S. resources. In addition, forthcoming regulations on Arctic offshore energy development need to be adaptable to the new technologies and practices that companies and regulators will advance. Overly prescriptive regulations could stifle innovations and improvements that could further enhance our ability to safely and efficiently extract Arctic oil.

Alaskans have long supported environmentally safe energy development. We value our state’s role in promoting U.S. energy independence and anchoring the United States as an Arctic nation. That’s why Alaskan leaders need to be a primary voice when it comes to determining U.S. policy in the Arctic, a policy defined by increased economic opportunity for Alaskans and a stronger role for the United States in this region of increasing geopolitical importance. 

Treadwell was Alaska’s lieutenant governor from 2010 to 2014 and is currently president of PT Capital, a firm which advises and invests in companies engaged in Arctic business.