There is only one bit of official business in the United States Senate Thursday, as a late-season snowstorm blankets Washington: A hearing on "opportunities for the United States to build on its status as an Arctic nation."
The appropriateness of holding the hearing during a snowstorm was much remarked upon by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who convened a panel before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that included two fellow Alaskans, a Mainer and a professor from Washington state.
"If there's one thing that the Arctic knows, it's weather," she said. "The people of the Arctic, their lives depend on knowing what will happen with the weather."
Much of the focus of the hearing was on "resource development" in the Arctic -- including the new opportunities for commerce created by historic low levels of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea.
"Our shipping lanes are opening up, additional areas become accessible for resource development, and we see tourism on the rise," Murkowski said, calling on the federal government to seize the "opportunities that are coming with diminished polar sea ice," including offshore oil and gas exploration.
"We can debate here in the Congress on the pro and cons of offshore development in the Arctic," she continued. "But even if you suggest that we take that off the table, the reality is these activities in the Arctic will continue with or without the United States' involvement," noting development efforts underway by Russia, Canada and others.
But later Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) questioned the wisdom of hailing new oil exploration opportunities while questioning the professor, Cecilia Bitz, a University of Washington atmospheric science researcher who testified about what she described as an alarming decline in the extent of Arctic sea ice.
"We're basically seeing this decline of Arctic sea ice, and that's what making available these shipping lanes and possible additional areas to explore for oil and gas," Franken said. "This is the effect of climate change, right?"
"I think at least a large portion of the decline is due to climate change, to human activities," Bitz said.
"And a lot of climate change is due to the burning of fossil fuels, right?" Franken asked, and Bitz agreed.
"Okay, so we have a bit of an ironic situation here, do we not?" Franken said. "That the burning of fossil fuels is creating opportunities to find more fossil fuels to burn?"
"It is obviously ironic, yes," Bitz said.
"Yes, it's funny how ironic it is," Franken deadpanned. "It's hilarious."
Later, Murkowski said weather trends are "an important part of what we are discussing today" and said that encouraging Arctic development is "not inconsistent with ensuring that we are good environment stewards."
One of the Alaskan witnesses, State Rep. Bob Herron (D), said any new economic opportunities are to be welcomed despite the possible climate implications -- making reference to a village that has been proposed to be relocated to higher ground due to reduced ice.
"There is no irony to a person who lives in Newtok," he said. "We need to develop our own resources so we can have a healthy sustainable community here in western Alaska."