The White House on Monday released a long-awaited document broadly laying out U.S. policy toward the Arctic, a region whose potential for oil, gas, and mineral exploitation is for the first time being unlocked by a historic ice melt driven by climate change.
The presidential directive was issued with just over a week to go in the Bush administration, but the policy review behind it lasted about two years. The last such review was completed in 1994.
"The United States is an Arctic nation, with varied and compelling interests in the region," the new policy states, including "broad and fundamental national security interests . . . and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests."
There are eight countries with land above the Arctic Circle: the United States, Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Norway, Russia, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. The first five have frontage on the Arctic Ocean, where potential disagreements over economic control of energy deposits would be most likely to play out.
Canada and Russia both have stepped up naval patrol and other military activities along their swaths of the Arctic, and the new U.S. policy envisions that the United States will "assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its Arctic interests and to project sea power throughout the region." It also reiterates the American position that U.S. vessels have the right of international navigation both through the Northwest Passage and through straits along the Northern Sea Route. Those sea lanes are expected to see significantly greater ship traffic as seasonal ice melting continues.
The presidential directive refers to a need to "develop greater capabilities and capacity" to protect U.S. "air, land, and sea borders in the Arctic region." It does not delve into the issue of funding an expansion of the U.S. fleet of ice breakers, as key analysts and, apparently, the U.S. Coast Guard hope to see in the future.
The new policy calls for Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the legal framework for activities in much of the Arctic. The United States is not yet a party.
The document also foresees that "energy development in the Arctic region will play an important role in meeting growing global energy demand." Scientists believe that the Arctic holds major deposits of natural gas and oil. Such energy development, the directive states, should proceed "in an environmentally sound manner."
Environmentalists, however, fear that energy operations, combined with increased shipping, fishing, and tourism, all will create ecological problems in a fragile region where, in general, human activity has been light.
"The Arctic has always been important to us," Paula Dobriansky, the outgoing under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, said in an interview last year. Arctic issues, she said, need to be handled with "a collective approach."
- Read more about how climate change is triggering a global race for the Arctic.