February 19, 2014

New Arctic Ambassador Role Raises Profile of Energy-Rich Region

By Peter Gardett

The Obama Administration’s decision to appoint an Arctic Ambassador boosts the profile of U.S. engagement with the region at a vital time.

A call from the State Department to Alaska Senator Mark Begich’s office last week confirmed that the U.S. plans to appoint an American Arctic Ambassador, according to a statement from Begich that followed. Begich has been pressing for an Arctic Ambassador since 2008, and reiterated the importance of boosting the profile of the State Department’s already active engagement with Arctic issues in a letter to Obama following the State of the Union speech in January 2013 and in meetings since.

The U.S. rarely thinks of itself as an Arctic nation, but it is about to assume the leadership of a unique international council that serves as a rare forum for engaging on Arctic issues at the very time that Arctic energy development and environmental security issues are swiftly gaining in geopolitical importance. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which includes Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, passes to the US in 2015 for a two year term.

Increased access to Arctic waters due to rising temperature trends attributed to climate change, which in turn allows for potentially improved access to energy resources, makes for a complex balancing act for countries hoping to boost economic development while limiting environmental impacts. The lightly populated but vast region has little historic precedent to guide interactions between different countries’ militaries, companies and commercial fleets.

The Arctic holds as much as 90 billion barrels of conventional oil reserves and may be the site of 30% of global unconventional energy reserves according to the Energy Information Administration, underlining the scale of the potential opportunity for Arctic countries and for international energy firms. 

The Arctic Council does not have the authority to set international law or negotiate the kind of binding commitments that could guide resolution of many of the Arctic’s biggest open questions for resource access and development. However, the lack of an alternative structure for discussing issues specific to the region makes the Arctic Council an important venue for engagement and prioritization of the unique matters that continue to arise for the decreasingly ice-bound north.

Open questions remain about how an Arctic Ambassador and associated staff would coordinate with the Oceans Ambassador or the State Department’s current Arctic work through its office of Ocean and Polar Affairs. Beyond internal State Department coordination, the Arctic Ambassador will also have to sort out responsibilities and authorities with other federal agencies invested in Arctic Council processes. Energy firms and other stakeholders will be watching for clues on new developments from the upcoming meeting of Senior Arctic Officials under the Canadian chairmanship scheduled for March 25-27 in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

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