Washington, D.C. has been hit with “Justin Fever” as Prime Minister Trudeau is in town to meet with President Obama — and attend the first U.S.-Canadian state dinner in nearly two decades. But the real impact of his visit might be felt less by the capital’s celebrity-starved journalists and more by the polar bears.
Under a new plan for the Arctic — the “shared Arctic leadership model” — the United States and Canada have pledged to work with indigenous groups to make science-based decisions. The plan seeks to protect the fragile Arctic environment, support resilient communities, and build a sustainable economy. Environmentalists applauded the news, but were quick to wonder if it meant that the countries would ban drilling in the Arctic.
The Arctic is considered ground zero for climate change. With a fragile, often frozen ecosystem, changes in global temperatures — and the accompanying disruptions — can be magnified. Melting glaciers contribute to rising sea levels, while exposing carbon reserves that simply increase the speed of climate change. Meanwhile, the animals that live in the Arctic are facing food shortages and other habitat changes. Communities in the Arctic have already had to relocate — Yup’ik Eskimo community in Alaska, a state that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the country, began moving their village last year.
The countries have already committed to protecting at least 17 percent of Arctic land areas and 10 percent of marine areas by 2020, but on Thursday, the leaders said they would continue to work to expand those goals — with a new commitment coming later this year.
“President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau are announcing a new partnership to embrace the opportunities and to confront the challenges in the changing Arctic, with Indigenous and Northern partnerships, and responsible, science-based leadership,” the two governments said in a statement.
But it was less than a year ago that the Obama Administration offered conditional approval to Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in a U.S.-controlled part of Arctic Ocean.
“We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) director Abigail Ross Hopper said at the time.
Shell’s plans drew aggressive opposition from environmental leaders and brought the administration under attack. Shell’s efforts have since been scuttled, but the administration has not said it will stop offering leases in the region.
So the question remains: Will the Arctic be included in BOEM’s next five-year plan, expected out later this month?
Environmental groups were quick to read between the lines of Thursday’s announcement, angling for a complete ban on oil and gas extraction.
“Today’s agreement sets a new bar for conserving and protecting the fragile Arctic, one we believe is high enough to ban future oil and gas development,” Environment America executive director Margie Alt said in an emailed statement. “As President Obama prepares to release the next draft of his five-year plan for oil and gas drilling, we urge him to meet the bar he boldly set today.”
But not everyone was so optimistic.
“This agreement comes as the Obama Administration is considering a plan to put drilling in the Arctic — as well as in the Gulf of Mexico and even in new areas in the Atlantic — into play for oil companies,” pointed out Greenpeace executive director Annie Leonard. “Today’s agreement between the US and Canada is commendable only as a stepping stone toward a fully protected Arctic without fossil fuel extraction.”
It’s been difficult to tell where the administration might be going on this issue. Shortly after Shell pulled out of the Arctic, the Interior Department cancelled planned lease sales for the Chukchi Sea, but it still did not commit to a long-term cessation of exploration activity. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell remained circumspect on a call with reporters Thursday morning.
“Going forward, decisions on activities like shipping, commercial fishing, oil and gas exploration, and drilling will depend, in part, on ensuring commercial activity does not diminish our ability to meet our climate change and Arctic stewardship goals,” Jewell said.
But she did not say that oil and gas development would stop. “With respect to oil and gas exploration and development, if these activities occur, the two countries commit to aligned, science-based standards, ensuring appropriate preparation for operating in Arctic conditions, including robust and effective well control and emergency response measures,” Jewell said.
That might be a tall order. The U.S. Coast Guard has already said that it is unprepared to respond to an oil spill in the Arctic.
But in the face of powerful interests that are ready to descend on the increasingly accessible Arctic and plunder its previously frozen assets, the two governments do seem ready to take some specific actions. Shipping has increasingly become a concern for maintaining the Arctic.
In January, the World Economic Forum launched the Arctic Investment Protocol, offering guidelines for nations looking to do business in the region. Ironically, the warmer the Arctic gets, the warmer the investment climate gets, too. Diminished ice coverage has led to a massive boom in ship traffic. Between 2005 and 2013, cargo ships through the Russian Northern Sea Route increased fourteen-fold.
On that front, the United States and Canada announced plans to establish new policies for ships operating in the Arctic. The leaders also said they would have the two Coast Guards work together and would determine how to address the risks of heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.