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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Leading at the Top of the World

Air Date: Week of

The Arktika is a class of nuclear-powered icebreaker developed by the Murmansk Shipping Company and now operated by the Russian government. As the largest and most powerful icebreakers ever constructed, they are often used to escort smaller ships through the Arctic Ocean. (Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #186141 / Nikolai Zaytsev; Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

The US recently took the reins of the Arctic Council, a group of 8 arctic nations and observers, which helps craft environmental and social policy for the region. As the Arctic warms, it opens the ocean there for navigation and oil and gas exploration. Mead Treadwell, the former Lt. Governor of Alaska tells host Steve Curwood there are many areas of co-operation among the arctic nations, but also issues that create tension and rivalry.


CURWOOD: The warming of the Arctic is front and center at the Arctic Council, the official diplomatic forum for the eight nations at the top of the world: Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada and the US. The United States has just begun a two-year term as chair of the Council where there is much cooperation but also tensions over the emerging sea lanes, oil and gas extraction, research and the need to address climate disruption. For some insight on the challenges facing the US in this new role, we turn to Mead Treadwell, a former Chair of the US Arctic Research Commission who just finished a term as Lieutenant Governor of Alaska in December. Welcome to Living on Earth, Governor.

TREADWELL: Steve, it’s great to be back with you.

CURWOOD: Now, there are a bunch of issues involved here. There's resource development. There's new shipping lanes that are opening up. There's security questions. There's the climate. There's governance. Governor, what's your top priority for the council and how can US leadership affect that?

TREADWELL: Well, Steve, I've always said that the Arctic is a brand new ocean, and if we don't use this ocean responsibly, we don't deserve to be there, and so we need, as shipping comes to the north and people have been trying to bring shipping to the north in a major way for 500 years or more of exploration, we need to do it right, and that means having ships that are prepared for ice conditions, it means having ice breakers and tugs and ports of refuge. We have to be aware of procedures in the Law of the Sea that would help us get safer shipping. Article 234 is an example that basically gives us power that no other coastal state would have to protect against oil spills from itinerant ships going through. And the US needs to make investments and understand that it, too, is an Arctic nation.

Global warming is causing the arctic to warm faster than any other region in the world. One of the outstanding symptoms of this is the Arctic Ocean’s thinning sea ice. (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, the United States doesn't have nearly the icebreakers that the Russians have, and we don't seem to have the resources for the Coast Guard to deal with the safety and even military issues that might come up. What do you think we should do?

TREADWELL: Well, I think we need permanent forward basing for the Coast Guard. They have been using temporary facilities in Barrow and Kotzebue and Nome. We need icebreakers for the Coast Guard and there's the concept of a billion dollar new Battlestar Galactica icebreaker. I don't think we need that. I think we need several smaller icebreakers that you could probably get faster by leasing them. I think we need rules that make sure that ships going through are prepared for oil spills, have done the prevention work for oil spills, just like we have for domestic shipping. We ought to have a cooperative shipping regime in the Arctic to pay attention to it the same way that we paid attention and got the Panama Canal built.

CURWOOD: Governor, what about oil and gas? I've seen articles that say that some 30 percent of the world's gas reserves, perhaps some 13 percent of the world's estimated oil reserves are there. But it's kind of tough to get them out. How safe is it to go after all this stuff?

TREADWELL: Well, I guess I can say that of the five Arctic states, all of us are trying it one way or the other. The Norwegians have been drilling in the North Sea for many years. We've had drilling in the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort. The Russians are drilling and have made major finds in the Kara Sea. Iceland has even been leasing its offshore areas and so has Canada and Greenland. So were all working on it together. We've done our best to share best practices, and we got a major exploration program we hope happens here in the Chukchi Sea this summer.

CURWOOD: Now, some would say that should there be any kind of major spill up there that we don't have the gear, nor even the expertise to deal with it. What would you say in response?

Hundreds of people travel through the Arctic on a daily basis, and in the case of an emergency, the Arctic Council created a search and rescue agreement delineating emergency response responsibilities. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

TREADWELL: Well, if we don't have the gear in the United States, you're not allowed to drill. So the oil companies coming to the table have to come with the major response contractors and so forth. As chair of the Arctic Research Commission, we wrote several reports, made major recommendations to the White House that we improve and get the US government more involved in the joint industry programs that are working to improve oil and ice response. At the same time, the federal government has rewritten its regulations in terms of what requirements are on the oilrigs themselves. So, we're constantly pushing this envelope, but I do believe it safe enough to explore and I don't think we can just flatly say don't do it. There are six Arctic nations working to explore for oil. I’d say get together and do it properly.

CURWOOD: Now, there are another eight countries in the Arctic council, with a number of other countries want a say in all this. What about the other countries of the world who want in?

TREADWELL: Well, officially, these countries are called observers. I think of them as Arctic partners, and, Steve, look at it this way. Whatever we do among the eight Arctic nations or the people who live in the Arctic region, we're not going to deal with some of these massive global problems without other large players sitting at the table. So the fact that China is now an observer - Singapore, India, Japan, Korea - and I guess I would say that what these countries are interested in is being partners with Arctic nations to make sure that what happens in this ocean happens right, and to be there as the rules are set.

CURWOOD: You mentioned, and the State Department often mentions, the importance of the Law of the Sea convention when it comes to global ocean issues, yet the US is not officially member of the Law the Sea Treaty process. How would you vote in the Senate if you were there if it were to come up for ratification and why?

TREADWELL: Well, I support the procedures in the Law of the Sea that affect us in the Arctic. I'm not sure I support the procedure in the Law of the Sea that has us pay a tax to the International Seabed Authority for offshore development anywhere a US company is working, and that's been what's held it up. It has not been the Arctic issues; in fact, there is a general consensus that we need it in the Arctic. That, as other nations are making claims for vast areas of the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, we need to be there and make our claim. There is freedom of seas embodied in Law of the Sea and it would help us get to remove the small disputes that we have Canada and Russia on internal waters versus international waters. The Law of the Sea has got other things in it that need to be fixed. One big concern that I have for researchers is that Russia has not been very welcoming of research inside its 200-mile limit and as they get control of land all the way to the North Pole on the ocean bottom, it's going to make it very hard for climate research by other nations without Russia. So I'm hopeful that negotiators on Law of the Sea might come together and work on access for research on the ocean bottom. So it may be time to address some of these issues and in another convention. I'm not sure.

Mead Treadwell (R) was Lieutenant Governor of Alaska until 2014, and is a past Chair of the US Arctic Research Commission. (Photo: NorthernAdamantium; Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

CURWOOD: Now, what about fishing in the Arctic?

TREADWELL: You know as the climate changes more and more fish stocks may be moving north, and the US has a moratorium on high seas fishing in its 200 mile limit, and I'm very glad about Ambassador David Balton has also brought the Arctic countries together to see if we can make sure that we do science before we allow commercial fishing. Over the last decade or so we've brought together scientists from the Barents Sea with scientists from the Bering Sea for example, and Russian scientists and Canadian scientists. So the fact that high seas fishing agreement in the Arctic is under consideration to me is very important.

CURWOOD: And, so far, what successes would you point to of the Arctic council?

TREADWELL: Oh, I'd say lots of successes. You know, early on, back before climate change was probably the largest issue, we were very concerned, Steve, about contaminants. So the council has had for a long time an Arctic monitoring and assessment program so that we can help fight transboundary pollution and I think that's been positive. The first binding agreement of the Arctic Council was a search and rescue agreement. Tens of thousands of people fly through the Arctic every day between Europe and Asia, North America and Asia, and the countries sat down in 2011 and divvied up the Arctic to assign responsibility for search and rescue. The oil spill agreement does not do as much in the way of prevention as I had hoped, but there's a number of other social issues that just in our small neighborhood at the top of the world have been addressed and need to be addressed. We have a very high suicide rate among young people, especially young men, and that is not just in Alaska, but it's in another Arctic regions, so we're sharing expertise on that. Another thing that I think is very important is protection of native languages, and we are sharing expertise on that. We're working on food security, we're working on lowering cost of energy, we're working on the suicide and the health issues, so in the close to 80 projects that these governments are doing together in the north, we are building a neighborhood, and despite the challenges that the United States has with Russia today and the west has with Russia today we are continuing cooperation at the top of the world.

CURWOOD: Mead Treadwell is former Republican Lieutenant Governor of Alaska, and has served in the past as chair of the US Arctic Research Commission. Thanks for taking the time with me today.

TREADWELL: Thanks, Steve, and we’ll see you at the top of the world.




US Dept of State's involvement with the Arctic Council

US Arctic Research Commission conducts research and advises the US government on arctic issues

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

Overview and history of UN Convention on the Law of the Sea


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