The Halfway Point of the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship

The Brookings Institute hosted U.S. Special Representative Admiral Papp for a discussion on what the U.S. has accomplished thus far in its chairmanship of the Arctic Council (AC) and what work remains.  Charles K. Ebinger, Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Initiative, the Brookings Institution, moderated the event.

Adm. Papp said the U.S. was evaluated on its work in the Arctic even before it assumed the AC chairmanship.  Its proposed agenda was viewed as a balanced, yet ambitious.  At that time, sanctions on Russia had been imposed, so there were also questions about that.  The other comments were excitement about the U.S. leadership, yet skepticism about the U.S. commitment to the Arctic.

Adm. Papp said views have now shifted that the U.S. “gets it” that it is an Arctic nation.  But skepticism remains as to how long this awareness will last past the chairmanship.  He noted that since the GLACIER conference, the President and White House have been engaged in the Arctic, and there is a sense of urgency about making progress now on our Arctic priorities.

Many action items have already been implemented.  The White House has announced $4 million for renewable energy options in Alaska.  The AC has implemented two legally binding agreements – Cooperation on Aeronautical & Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, and the Cooperation on Marie Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic.

The U.S. also chairs the Arctic Offshore Regulators Forum, administered by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which is meeting in D.C. this week.

In the years ahead, Adm. Papp hopes progress comes not just from projects, but also from U.S. efforts to shape the AC’s broader goals.

Another area of progress in the past year is an initiative on Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups – Strengths United through Networks (RISING SUN).  This was designed as a follow-on activity to the mental wellness project of 2013-2015, led by Canada and collaborating countries.

Under Canada’s chairmanship, the project focused on best practices from literature and community-based interventions.  RISING SUN was designed as the next logical step:  Identify a toolkit of common outcomes to be used in evaluating suicide prevention efforts to assess the key correlates associated with suicide prevention interventions across Arctic states.

The ultimate goal is to share the knowledge that will aid health experts and community health workers, facilitate data sharing, make better assessments, and interpret information.

Adm. Papp discussed the Fullbright Arctic Initiative, which will bring together a network of scholars, professionals, and applied researchers from the eight Arctic states for a series of three seminar meetings and a Fullbright exchange experience.  Its purpose is to increase mutual understanding between people in the U.S. and other Arctic countries.  It uses a collaborative model to translate theory into practice in order to model action in the Arctic after research and local knowledge.

Adm. Papp said the U.S., for the next half of its chairmanship, will work on more than just projects, and wants to shape broader AC goals.

The top three U.S. priorities are:  (1) Raise domestic awareness of the U.S. as an Arctic state.  (2) Contribute to the AC legacy.  (3) Launch new initiatives with long term Arctic impacts.

One project with long term impact is a circumpolar infrastructure assessment focusing on building telecommunications facilities across the Arctic.

Ebinger asked Adm. Papp about the impact of Shell pulling out of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

Adm. Papp said this has reduced the urgency for the U.S. to be prepared for emergencies, such as Arctic oil spills.  Raising awareness and getting attention from others in the U.S. will now be more difficult, but he said this shouldn’t be the only concern.  Ships go through the Bering Strait carrying fuel every day that could potentially spill into the ocean.  It may be minor compared to an Arctic offshore drilling operation, but any type of oil spill is bad.

Asked about Russian cooperation with indigenous peoples, Adm. Papp said the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) continues to participate, but there are concerns of how its leadership is elected.

Asked about the energy program, Adm. Papp replied that the AC is trying for a balanced energy program.  There is opposition from both sides, which means that it is balanced, taking into consideration a wide and diverse number of options.  The Arctic will continue to deal with fossil fuels, but this needs to be done in a cleaner way.

Iceland’s Ambassador asked a question about the interest level in renewable energy.  Given the frustration with the price of fuel, does the U.S. have a specific timeline or particular goal?

Adm. Papp responded that renewable energy requires resources.  Alaska is facing economic and infrastructure challenges right now and needs a new start in this non-growth period.  The private sector needs incentives to embark on public private partnerships (P3’s), with a focus on the long term.  Singapore, for example, has developed a long term strategy where, if business lines change, it will operate through a northern shipping route.  Singapore is willing to invest in this because it take long-term view of its future.

Asked about future continuity, Adm. Papp said this comes with strategic planning.  The U.S. does not want projects to be dropped at the end of a chairmanship.

Asked about the polar code, which goes into effect at the beginning of 2017, Adm. Papp replied that part of the AC’s purity is that it is a consensus based international forum, which doesn’t take action without consent from all parties.  This differs from other international forums that don’t necessarily require consensus.  Adm. Papp said consensus is a fundamental aspect of AC that allows for international cooperation.

Asked about the vision for the AC observers, Adm. Papp said they are the outer ring of participants.  The current challenges with observers are solvable.  When the AC was created, you practically had to pay people to be observers.  Now, there’s a waiting list.  Observer comments and concerns deserve to be heard.  Observer participation should be based on performance, with a set number and clear and understandable details for their role.

Asked about the complexion of a scientific agreement, Adm. Papp said this question is a little premature to answer.  Whenever countries work together, they should work on issues that benefit both parties.  Also important is that they do not work separately on the same topic.  More can be accomplished by working together.  A successful example of this is the U.S.-Canada bilateral work on Great Lakes icebreakers.

Asked about China’s activities and interests in the Arctic, Adm. Papp replied that a lot of theorizing has occurred about China attempting a “land grab” in the Arctic.  In reality, he said, China is taking a longer term view, like Singapore.  The difference is that Singapore is open to communication about its interests.

Asked about ocean planning options, Adm. Papp said the primary goals are building policy interests and getting legislative action.  The U.S. is advocating for industry and development because legislation seems to move quickly when business prospects are involved.  Every country should build up its ocean policies.

Ebinger asked if there was some type of “black swan” in Arctic policy where if a specific event occurred the timeline would change completely.

Adm. Papp said an Exxon Valdez-size oil spill is the only major event he could think of that would drive policy.  But, it’s not an event that one necessarily wants to happen, given the implications.  He added that the oil production and tanker traffic that led to the Exxon Valdez disaster was fueled by the U.S. desire for energy independence.