Murkowski: Arctic issues about more than Alaska

Alaska's senior senator talks about what the US can achieve as chair of the Arctic Council
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski responds to a question during an interview at the Juneau Empire on Wednesday.

For Sen. Lisa Murkowski, there aren’t many topics hotter than the Arctic these days, especially as the U.S. steps into the chairmanship role of the Arctic Council this year. Alaska’s senior senator spoke with the Empire on Wednesday from her office in Washington, D.C. about why discussing Arctic issues should be a nationwide priority. The Arctic Council is a intergovernmental group consisting of eight member countries that addresses issues pertaining to Arctic governments and the 4 million people who live there. The U.S.’s chairmanship of the council will last through 2017. The following interview has been edited for length.

A study you cited in a recent My Turn we published says only 32 percent of Americans and 35 percent of Alaskans know about the Arctic Council. Where does this apathy come from and what’s your strategy to raise awareness?

First of all, the polling information was quite telling. Those of us engaged in the Arctic made assumptions that others found it ... interesting. In fairness, the Arctic Council is not a body that is in the day-to-day news. It’s not a governing body in the sense there are binding outcomes, ... so its surprising and not surprising we saw those numbers. What I’m going to try and do is raise awareness (about) what a significant opportunity we have ... by setting the agenda (for the chairmanship) ... to make sure the vision we set is enduring. This is about education, this is about awareness, ... this is something viewed as the last frontier, so lets embrace it and Alaska can lead with it.

What will be your gauge of success when the U.S. completes its stint as chair of the Arctic Council in 2017?

Making sure U.S. priorities are recognized. I recognize and acknowledge climate change must be part of the discussion when we’re talking about the Arctic, because we see the impact of a warming climate in Arctic areas, but it’s not the end all be all. ... We can’t forget the families who live in the Arctic. Whether societal or economic issues, in my view if we look at a successful two years as the head of the Arctic Council it will be to raise awareness of who the people of the north are and how we live. More importantly going forward is how our standard of living in the Arctic can be made better through ... education ... and enhanced quality of life.

Do you expect there to be any contention, considering Russia’s proximity to Alaska and the headlines they’ve made recently for what some view as “aggressive” posturing?

Clearly there are events on the ground causing tension between the United States and Russia, and the politics of that is apparent and I think it does influence cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. We saw that at the (Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting) in Canada, when there was tension between Canada and Russia. ... But I do think it is important to remind people that when the Arctic Council was formed ... military (action) was left off the table. (The Arctic Council) is about areas of cooperation, not how we resolve conflict. If you look to those areas, despite political tensions, there are areas we can see greater cooperation. With Russia, ... we could work together for scientific research (and oil spill cleanup).

What role do you expect resource development to play?

You have different parts of the Arctic where you have different layers of economic activity. In the European Arctic, you have pretty robust economies, transportation and energy grids; you have resource development whether it is mining in Sweden or fisheries or oil and gas in Norway. On the other side of the pole, in Canada, the U.S. and Russia, it’s a different scenario. It’s big, open country with limited economic development. I think you will see a greater level of interest or activity, whether shipping products or moving materials around to where you might have the opportunity to explore for oil and gas in the Chukchi, like what will happen this summer when Shell begins to prepare (for exploratory drilling). I think a lot of people forget what we did in the 1980s; there are 42 wells between Beaufort and Chukchi that have been successfully explored, yet you think from all the hue and cry in Seattle that this is the first time we’ve ever seen a drill ship in the Arctic.

How do your colleagues respond when you talk to them about Arctic issues?

When I speak with colleagues about the possibilities for us in the Arctic they’re curious and want to learn more. Whether it’s deep water ports or roads or ice breakers, I think for most there’s an assumption we have more than we do. The reality is it is very slim up there right now. It’s going to require infrastructure and that requires resources. That’s why the proposal I have made that would allow for a level of revenue sharing to the states, but also provide for infrastructure in the north, is an important piece as to how we build out our Arctic opportunities.

Will revenue sharing of offshore resources be difficult for Alaska to acquire?

The (Obama) administration announced in its budget ... they’re going to claw that back (revenue sharing among Gulf of Mexico states), that none of the increased revenue sharing should go to the Gulf states. Two reasons for that. First is looking for additional federal revenues to spend in other areas, and you also have an administration that says (offshore) resources ... should belong to all Americans equally. When it comes to onshore revenue, whether its mineral or oil or gas, sharing to the state is very clear: it’s a 50/50 split and there’s no question about it. To say the states that host the offshore exploration don’t bear a greater burden or wear and tear than other states ... does not make sense. Whether you’re in Louisianna or Alaska, that you have men and women flying into your community and using your road systems, education systems ... to say people in Akron, Ohio should get an equal benefit to the people in Barrow belies the fact you have a host community whose services are being impacted. I don’t understand how the administration can insist there should be no added benefit to those coastal states. And so, it’s a fight we’re going to continue to have with this administration.

Have you noticed any Republican candidates for President who have taken an interest in the Arctic?

Amongst the Republicans, there are none that have really engaged in the Arctic initiatives. Hilary Clinton is one, when she was in the Senate, who went on an Arctic trip and it really piqued her interest. (Murkowski noted this is not an endorsement of Clinton and she would like to see a Republican in the White House.) When (Clinton) became secretary of state, she was the first to attend an Arctic Council meeting (Murkowski said she encouraged Clinton to attend it with her.) My goal is to make sure we have a Republican nominee engaged on all things Arctic.

What is it other countries want to accomplish through the Arctic Council?

Cooperation. If we’re making advances in technologies that allow us to have cheaper sources of energy in an Arctic environment, let’s share that. If we have a better understanding ... of our fisheries, let’s share that.

Could Alaska see a population boom as the Arctic opens up and more shipping and transportation lanes become available?

I think you’ll see economic activity that helps our economies, but developing this infrastructure for that level of stepped up activity will take a while. They say getting a deep water port up and running is a minimum of 10 years. As important as the need is, ... that would be years. The lead times are very, very long. Any kind of development, ... if you’re talking about oil opportunities in the Beaufort or Chukchi, the petroleum council knows there are long lead times.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

I think it is important for Alaskans to recognize that although this is seemingly about us, it’s in our state and in our backyard, ... when we’re talking about infrastructure it’s not an Alaska earmark. ... It’s a national asset. It’s about the country’s ... energy security or national security. It’s about our position in a world of commerce where, when you can find ways to ship things through shorter routes, ... it is good for the people in Iowa trying to move corn or the people in Illinois wanting to sell a Caterpillar engines. We need to make sure (all people) ... recognize they are part of the Arctic. That is why we’re raising awareness and I think we’re making some good headway.

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