White House Directive Guides Policy on Arctic

A Coast Guard icebreaker is docked off Alaska's northern coast. A shortage of the ships is among the problems the United States faces in the region.
A Coast Guard icebreaker is docked off Alaska's northern coast. A shortage of the ships is among the problems the United States faces in the region. (U.S. Coast Guard via Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 19, 2009

The White House last week issued a new policy directive to guide government decisions involving the Arctic, a document that outlines an array of challenges the incoming administration will face as rising temperatures spark a surge in economic and military activity there -- along with new environmental concerns.

The 10-page directive signed by President Bush, which took two years to write and is meant to guide 10 Cabinet departments along with the Environmental Protection Agency, updates a policy first established 14 years ago. While fairly general, the document highlights the need for the United States to assert its interests in a region that has become increasingly desirable to countries that hope to exploit its natural resources and strategic possibilities.

"The United States has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests," the directive says.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the administration wanted to update the Arctic policy in order to reflect the creation of new federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and because the changing climate in northern latitudes has spurred new military and commercial activity there.

"The overarching purpose of doing the directive is because of the significant changes that have taken place in the Arctic . . . and realigning policy to deal with it," he said.

On Friday, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program issued a report, led by the U.S. Geological Survey, concluding that the extent of Arctic summer sea ice loss over the past few decades is highly unusual compared with what has occurred over the past several thousand years. Temperature change in the Arctic has outpaced that of other regions in the Northern Hemisphere, the study said, and the trend is expected to continue.

The new policy directive covers several key areas, including national security, energy exploration and the environment, but it does not specify whether any should take precedence over others.

That led Jeremy Rabkin, a professor at George Mason University Law School, to comment: "It's really a list of all the things we're concerned about; that's not policy. I don't see anything here that helps you decide what gets priority."

Bush administration officials have emphasized in recent years that the government lacks the necessary equipment and infrastructure to maintain a more consistent presence in the Arctic. Last summer, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted a series of test deployments of aircraft, small boats and personnel to the North Slope of Alaska, and navigation aids and communications equipment in the Bering Strait, to explore their ability to operate in the harsh Arctic climate. Unsurprisingly, the service had earlier found that its equipment, such as C-130 aircraft, had difficulty navigating and communicating in minus-40-degree temperatures.

More broadly, lawmakers have complained of a shortage of working icebreakers -- a legacy of a turf fight between the Coast Guard, which operates them, and the National Science Foundation, which pays to maintain them.

Richard Ranger, senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, said that while the oil and gas industry believes "there is a significant resource future in the Arctic, many around the world are raising hard questions" about both the environmental impact and technical challenges of operating there.

Both Ranger and the Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Thad W. Allen, have said that expanded commercial activity in the region will require the establishment of search and rescue capability as well as a formal oil spill response program, among other measures.

The directive calls for increased study of changing climate conditions and environmental concerns such as increased pollution in the area, but environmentalists said the government needs to make these issues a higher priority.

"We think the only sensible approach in the Arctic is to have a science-based approach," said Janis Searles Jones, senior vice president for national policy and legal affairs at the Ocean Conservancy, an advocacy group. With warmer temperatures, she said, "you're removing the shield that has effectively sheltered the Arctic from this gold rush."

The new policy directive may provide added impetus for Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a global pact that could govern some of the competing Arctic claims. Some conservatives have blocked a vote on the treaty despite the Bush administration's support of it. On Tuesday, incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said he would push for ratification.

"The Arctic should be recognized as a strategic priority for our nation," Kerry said in a statement. "In order to guarantee secure borders, ensure access to natural resources, mediate shipping and transportation routes, and protect our marine resources, we must become full partners with the other Arctic nations and ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea."

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