Even with Trump, Arctic policy changes remain more talk than action
Mead Treadwell has had a busy month. Last week, Alaska s former lieutenant governor was in Tokyo. On Tuesday, he was in Germany. By Thursday, he was in Washington, D.C. Everyone, it seems, wants to know about the Arctic. More specifically, everyone wants to know what America might do in the Arctic now that Donald Trump is president.
By phone, Treadwell said that when he talked in Tokyo, he referred to the famous Japanese painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa. He said there s two ways to look at Trump: From the position of someone threatened by that wave, or as a surfer.
The surf is up, and it s time to surf the trade wave, the energy wave, the infrastructure investment wave, and probably the defense wave, he said. When it comes to Arctic trade, defense and transportation, I believe all those things stand a much better chance under a Trump administration, Treadwell said.
Before becoming lieutenant governor, Treadwell was chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission under President George W. Bush. He now works for a private capital firm devoted to the Arctic and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he s advocating that Treadwell be appointed to a position in the new administration. Sullivan, from his position on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been advocating for a greater U.S. military presence in the Arctic to balance a surge of Russian construction. A military look
The Barents Observer newspaper reported early this month that more than 1,000 workers have been employed during the winter building over 100 military objects in the Arctic, including improvements to airfields near Alaska.ARSullivan said he isn t sure if President Trump will pursue a policy of accommodation with Russia in the Arctic.
I think a lot of that remains to be seen, he said. I think whether or not the administration is going to have a good relationship with Russia is largely going to depend on Russia.
If Russia continues to invade other countries and stays a staunch ally of Iran, I don t think we re going to see much accommodating, Sullivan said. I certainly won t be accommodating with regard to my position as a senator on the armed services committee.
Treadwell said it s important to remember that even though the U.S. and Russia might disagree about other portions of the world, they ve been able to sit across the table peacefully on Arctic issues ranging from fishing to transportation. In May, the State Department is organizing and hosting a ministerial meeting in Fairbanks to conclude the two-year U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Russian representatives are expected to attend. Nevertheless, there are potential points of conflict.
In December, the Department of Defense released an unclassified version of its Arctic strategy in the coming months. That report says the defense department is planning to invest in command, control, communications and intelligence tools covering the Arctic, and it is planning to conduct freedom of navigation sailings through Arctic waters claimed by both Russia and Canada. As Sullivan pointed out, the U.S. has only two heavy icebreakers, and one of those is broken. Without icebreakers, there s no way to conduct those sailings.
The capability of actually conducting those operations by the U.S. military is very limited, he said. In the final months of the Obama administration, Congress approved a military funding bill containing $1 billion for icebreaker design and construction.
I m hoping that we re going to be able to finalize that kind of funding for icebreakers (under Trump), Sullivan said.
Part of Russia s Arctic building spree including new icebreakers is being driven by a mammoth natural gas development in northern Siberia called Yamal. Instead of building a long-distance pipeline, Russian investors have spent billions of dollars to construct 15 icebreaking tanker ships. In the summer, those ships will sail west, through the Arctic Ocean and through the Bering Strait to Asian delivery ports.
It is wrong to think about security without thinking about the economics, Treadwell said at the Marshall Center conference.
Under a Trump administration, you re likely to see a number of new projects in Alaska get traction, he added by phone. For the United States, the question of Arctic defense and icebreakers is almost a chicken-and-egg problem. Can development happen before there are icebreakers and infrastructure to support it, and does that infrastructure make sense before there is drilling and mining that need it?
Before leaving office, President Barack Obama indefinitely banned drilling in portions of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska.
I m hopeful the Trump administration will and we re working with them to reverse some of those lock-up orders, Sullivan said. Even if that happens, drilling and development wouldn t happen quickly. With global and oil and gas prices low, there s no incentive for drillers to spend money drilling offshore in the Arctic. Even onshore development in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (still off-limits, despite the requests of Alaska s Congressional delegation and the Alaska Legislature) would be a matter of years, not months. Even on the Russian side of the Arctic, things are taking time.
Larry Persily is the former federal coordinator for Alaska s long-distance natural gas pipeline. He now works for the Kenai Peninsula Borough and remains one of the state s experts on the global natural gas situation. At Yamal, liquefied natural gas tankers aren t expected to begin coming through the Bering Strait until late this year and probably not in significant numbers until 2018.
Initially, they might do a half-dozen tankers a month, so it s not going to be a lot of traffic, Persily said by phone. Traffic cops
With no significant offshore drilling expected this year (oil and gas companies do operate in state waters up to 3 miles offshore), cross-Arctic shipping will be the biggest commercial operation in the far north this year.
Ed Page, director of the Marine Exchange of Alaska, said even that may not amount to much.
I think it ll be less than it has in the past, he said by phone. It s kind of like a lull, or so it appears to be, in maritime activity up there. David Seris of the waterways management division of the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska said the Coast Guard counted 485 sailings through the Bering Strait by 290 different ships in 2016. That s down from 540 sailings in 2015. Falling oil prices have curtailed the oil and gas development that is the peak driver of traffic through the strait.
Page and Seris added that large cruise ships will return to the Arctic Ocean in 2017, but with only a handful of sailings, they aren t expected to make a significant impact on the statistics. In preparation for a day when sailings increase, the Coast Guard is expected to put the finishing touches on a plan that defines a shipping channel through the American side of the strait. Seris said that proposal will be published in the Federal Register later this year, then submitted to the International Maritime Organization for consideration.
The Coast Guard remains the lead federal agency in the Arctic and has a full slate of activities planned this year, said Lt. Cmdr. Ray Reichl, a spokesman for Coast Guard District 17, which covers Alaska. Coast Guard helicopters will be based in Kotzebue to provide search-and-rescue coverage across the North Slope and offshore waters. The Coast Guard Cutters Sherman and Alex Haley will visit the Arctic Ocean, as will the buoy tender Hickory. The Coast Guard is planning an oil-spill response drill for the waters off Barrow, Coast Guard research and development teams will be testing equipment, and the icebreaker Healy, under contract to the National Science Foundation, will again sail deep into the Arctic Ocean.
Most of the Coast Guard work will take place between July 1 and mid-September.
By phone, Treadwell said it s important for Alaskans and Americans as a whole to pay attention to what s happening in the Arctic, even if they can t see icebergs outside their window.
If you live in Alaska, it s nice to know your neighborhood, and our neighborhood is the Arctic, Treadwell said.
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