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Under Biden, the US could fall further behind in the Arctic

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If you’re not a regular TASS reader, you might have missed news from the U.S. government: Russia is now our No. 2 foreign oil supplier. The United States buys twice as much oil from Russia as we produce in Alaska.  

Russia has more than doubled its U.S. sales since President Biden took office. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in June alone, Russia sold us more than 25 million barrels. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent U.S. market share gain is thus equal to the entire current output of Alaska’s oil and gas industry, where production has fallen 75 percent from its 1988 peak.

Just last year, this news might have generated shock and consternation, particularly because the Treasury Department sanctions parts of the Russian energy industry to try to change behavior.  But whose behavior? The United States also has become Russia’s single-biggest customer for heavy-oil products.  

With U.S. energy independence fading in the rearview mirror, policymakers need to wake up about how to protect national security interests.  

Of the destructive actions taken by the Biden administration to date, one of the most invidious has been to purge independent federal agencies, commissions and boards that dispense important policy.  

To be sure, these are not administration positions that Biden has sheer constitutional authority to appoint upon assuming office — these are positions set for a term of years that stretch beyond the presidential cycle. Until Biden, these terms have been respected. Contrary to Washington norms, Biden’s smothering of dissenting views is par for the course in the same autocratic countries upon whom we find ourselves increasingly reliant to supply our basic needs.   

The presence of independent policy experts dispensing advice to Congress, free from political control by the White House, is a longstanding, vital mechanism ensuring continuity and guarding against authoritarian overreach. Former President Trump, routinely caricatured for the same, respected the Obama appointees on independent boards who served out their terms and provided advice that was often at complete odds with Trump’s administration. Biden has taken the opposite tack. But who pays the price for Biden’s impetuousness? Who benefits? 

For its part, Alaska finds itself struggling with a yawning budget deficit that limits its ability to subsidize the high cost of living there. Oil and gas still account for roughly half of Alaska’s economy and a quarter of its jobs. Having burned through budgetary reserves as resource production has fallen, Alaska must draw especially hard this year on its Permanent Fund. Fortunately for Alaskans, this is a well-run effort that has generated exceptional recent returns. 

Yet, while Alaska’s investment managers find alpha in Anchorage and our Coast Guard finds Chinese warships in the Aleutians, American scientists and researchers also continue to find massive new Arctic resources — not only hydrocarbons, but also metals and minerals. Production, however, is another story.  

Discoveries such as Pikka, Smith Bay, Willow, Bornite, Arctic and most astoundingly, Pebble, will mean little to most in the Lower 48. The latter, however, represents a potential trillion-dollar opportunity. Further on the horizon are methane hydrates and other base and rare metal deposits containing raw ingredients needed for the technological frontier, from batteries to telecom. One metal, scandium, is present in high quantities only in the Arctic Ocean. It’s used in fighter jets and today sourced mostly from China and Russia. Failure to keep pace in American resource production has meaningful consequences at multiple levels: jobs, security, growth.  

By contrast, Russian Arctic resource development is surging and poised to deliver huge gains in coming years.  

Though experts here often have dismissed Russian Arctic energy development as uneconomic and mere vehicles of corrupt wealth transfer, there are increasing reasons to doubt this. Arctic ice class liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers soon will be shuttling year-round across the Northern Sea Route, down through the Bering Strait and past Alaska. Yet this week, Europeans are experiencing exploding natural gas prices attributed to restricted flows from the Yamal Peninsula, a key Russian Arctic production region.

Less obviously, Russian Arctic energy technologies and advancements also are flourishing.  Since 2014, Russian Arctic resource producers have filed hundreds of domestic patents — a domestic innovation drive spurred, in part, by the U.S. blocking its own industry’s participation in Russia’s Arctic.

But, if it has been ignored here, Russia hasn’t hidden its intentions to develop its Arctic resources, even as the world works toward energy transition. In 2020, Russia announced plans to spend more than $300 billion on supporting Arctic infrastructure. By comparison, the investment to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System 50 years ago would be about $8 billion in today’s dollars. Moscow-based oil company Rosneft plans to invest $135 billion in Vostok Oil and Novatek is accelerating Arctic LNG 2, another massive Arctic project. To help support these operations, Russia sports a fleet of more than 50 conventional and nuclear ice-breaking vessels, whereas the U.S. has a functional grand total of two. Having won the Cold War, we are now losing the frozen one.

Last month I found myself in a political imbroglio that reminded me of my days as a young American exchange student in the Soviet Union. In this case, I was on the receiving end of an ideological purge similar to those I once studied: The White House unexpectedly demanded that I resign or be terminated as a commissioner of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC). 

This independent agency, which reports to both the president and Congress, was established to promote Arctic research and, among other duties, to develop and recommend an integrated national Arctic research policy. For decades, administrations have respected its independence and haven’t removed appointees by previous presidents. President Biden dismissed four of Trump’s commissioners, and last week named six of his own appointees.

When the 1984 Arctic Research and Policy Act created USARC, U.S.-Soviet Relations were at a nadir. Now, the law’s purposes read as if they were written today: reduce our dependence on foreign oil, secure our national defense, understand our changing climate, protect our environment, promote international scientific cooperation and enhance the lives of Arctic residents.

Scientific research is crucial to the United States’s long-term ability to drive technological advancement, foster innovation and protect our national interests, be they commercial, military, environmental or social. Yet, politicized science fails. By attempting to terminate USARC’s independent commissioners, the White House has done just this.    

Thomas Emanuel Dans, CFA, is former counselor to the under secretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department and a former commissioner of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. He is co-founder of Amberwave Partners, an investment research firm.

Tags Alaska Arctic drilling competition for minerals and metals Donald Trump Joe Biden Russia Vladimir Putin
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