Alaska prepares for an Arctic rush
By Jenni Monet
The rapidly melting Arctic is being targeted for world energy dominance and the issue drove the dialogue at the Arctic Encounter Symposium, a two-day conference last week in downtown Anchorage, attracting a global roster of diplomats, politicians, energy executives, and Indigenous stakeholders.
Following the Arctic’s seventh warmest year on record, interest in the circumpolar north is heating up almost as fast as the region itself. The planet’s melting ice cap has become a place of interest for extractive energy forecasting, mostly in the form of shipping liquefied natural gas or LNG through routes once too frozen to cut through.
Alaska's former lieutenant governor Mead Treadwell went public with an LNG export company in 2019. And with a particular partner: ExxonMobil. By Treadwell's estimate shared at the symposium, his company Qilak LNG could export four million tons of LNG per year to Asian markets with revenues increasing the longer that shipping seasons stretch by each retreating ice year. Point Thompson, located 60 miles east of Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, has an estimated eight trillion cubic feet of untapped natural gas and 200 million barrels of natural gas condensate, approximately one-quarter of the total projected gas available in the region.
Still prospect of added ship traffic does not bode well for marine mammals traveling the Bering Strait. The latest Arctic Report Card found that waters of the Bering Strait are now noisier due to an increase in ship traffic.
The Arctic is experiencing nothing short of a new rush for territory and natural resources - a venture worth hundreds of billions of dollars. “It's a worldwide jump ball right now where natural gas is going,” said Treadwell. “It puts Alaska in a very interesting position.” Interest in the region has been building for years among the eight Arctic nations, the U.S., Canada, Russia, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Denmark (Greenland). From claiming shipping routes to securing energy reserves, these issues of competition have historically been managed with diplomacy. Now, as a collision of events occurs involving the climate crisis, technological advances, and an increase in global energy demand, there is mounting debate on whether the opening Arctic can be further colonized in a way that is sustainable–and as the conflict in Ukraine lingers–in ways that ensure peace.
Ramifications of war
Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has complicated relations, an issue that U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) addressed during a press conference with ambassadors attending the symposium. "We all know that the elephant in the room right now is that eighth Arctic nation, Russia, is not present with us —and for good reason,” she said. “You cannot have Russia engaging in the atrocities that we are seeing play out on a daily basis and still expect to have a cooperative diplomatic dialogue.” Arctic Encounter Symposium organizers said the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, was initially invited to the event but withdrew his name a week before the conflict erupted in late February.
Russia is the world's largest exporter of LNG, accounting for about 45 percent of the European Union's imports in 2021. It also exports gas to two Arctic nations, Canada and Norway. For this reason, most observers see Russia as the most dominant player in the Arctic, a country that charted through the icy waters long before any other. Russia has invested billions of dollars in northern infrastructure including a number of ports and the world's largest fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. On the US side, there is the argument that a deep-water port is needed to compete in the new economy brought by the warming Bering Sea. The Port of Nome has been targeted for expansion to a deep-draft port, a $665 million infrastructure project. Meanwhile, U.S. Coast Guard officials at the symposium said the agency expects to deploy as many as two new icebreakers to replace the outdated Polar Star, already 10 years over its 30-year lifespan, and the Healy which recently resumed operation following a 2020 electrical fire.
Another dynamic playing out is the militarization of the Arctic as Russia has steadily been restoring Soviet-era airfields and naval assets. This has spurred other Arctic nations to take action, including Norway. "We are increasing our military budget," said Anniken R. Krutnes, Ambassador of the Royal Norwegian Embassy to the United States. At the press conference, she rattled off a list of recent security investments the country has made including surveillance aircraft and even submarines.
Norway, the fourth-largest importer of Russian natural gas, has joined a growing list of countries and corporations that have imposed economic sanctions against Russia, including the U.S. On Thursday, April 7, Congress overwhelmingly passed a ban on Russian oil and gas, among other measures, a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Murkowski and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“They won't have one dollar coming from the U.S. economy that would support their war against Ukraine," said Manchin who was at the symposium in Anchorage as the invited guest of Murkowski. With attention on the bloodshed in Ukraine, the lawmakers are preparing for a more aggressive approach to an Arctic future, including a revised national Arctic strategy soon to be released by the Biden Administration, the first time the document will be updated since its publication under President Obama in 2013. They are timely steps focused on how best to capitalize on the new and unexpected disruption of Russia's global LNG dominance – an opening much like the Arctic, itself.
The extreme warming of the Bering Sea is a reality that is not new to Vera Kingeekuk Metcalf who lives in Nome and attended the symposium as a panelist to discuss her ways of knowing growing up the daughter of walrus hunters off Sivungap (Savoonga) on St. Lawrence Island.
Since 2002, she has served as executive director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which represents 19 Alaska Native coastal communities defending their harvest of the sea mammal against a wave of emerging threats brought on by climate change. But such stewardship doesn't end with the walruses. Recently, when avian cholera broke out and birds began to die off, the Commission turned its attention to harmful algal blooms that were posing a new threat to the marine ecosystem. “The birds, fish, and caribou - we rely on them for our spiritual and cultural well-being,” Metcalf told the symposium audience. “Our communities, our relationship of our homelands, and our waters are all living things.”
She encourages anyone with extractive or military intentions in the region to learn from the Indigenous knowledge systems that have carried her ancestors for thousands of years – and not just in Alaska but across a network of northern Indigenous communities where kin relations exist in Russia, Canada, and Greenland.
“This is not a research project. For us, it is real,” said Metcalf. “Our safety and well-being, our providers risk their lives for the harvest we depend on.”
As attention on the Arctic intensifies, so does the harsh reality of data scarcity, the lack of hard numbers to fully understand the human impact on the fragile ecosystem. One significant gap is patterns of sea ice melt. The most credible records to date began only twelve years ago, about half the timeline of what climatologist Rick Thoman with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for Climate Assessment and Policy says is needed for proper analysis. Still, the rapidly changing Arctic brings so many unknowns. “Even if we had longer periods of observation from sea ice thickness data, it might be less information because the ice conditions are so different from then and now," said Thoman.
Because of these information gaps, researchers are thinking of new ways to gather facts, including a reliance on “citizen scientists” to help collect data. In Alaska, this most distinctly involves Indigenous knowledge. One recent project led by NOAA and the National Park Service organized a group of scientists, volunteers, and youth who combed Alaska's beaches, many on the homelands of Alaska Natives, to gather, weigh and remove 11 tons of marine debris, mostly from industrial fisheries. “We're being impacted, we're seeing the changes,” Metcalf said. “Our Indigenous knowledge - I think it's finally being recognized more in the scientific community because we're right there.”
But with this knowledge comes responsibility. “I've been told by my elders that some knowledge is for our own benefit and not everything has to be shared,” Metcalf told The Nome Nugget. "We've been sharing for so many years that sometimes that knowledge has been misused by others.”
Preserving the integrity of traditional ways of knowing presents yet one more challenge in a chain of uncertain events rapidly unwinding at the top of the world.
Mead Treadwell's company has borrowed the Inuit word Qilak to market his LNG project. Loosely translated, it means “dome of the sky,” though his sales pitch reveals little explanation for how the symbolism relates to his $5 billion natural gas venture.
What is clear is that Indigenous through lines always underlie the story of Alaska's modern extractive economy founded fifty years ago on oil-rich Iñupiaq lands today known as Prudhoe Bay. In 1971, three years after the discovery of that oil, Congress ‘extinguished’ aboriginal title to 365 million acres, paving the way for long-term exploitation of petroleum reserves by way of the storied Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Treadwell arrived to Alaska a year after the 800-mile TAP went online. Today, the aging pipeline is a reminder of bygone energy plays in the Arctic, but also a business solution that some see worth replicating in the state.
Last year, the State of Alaska's public company, The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC) cleared its final permit to build a new pipeline, 807 miles long, to move Arctic LNG to the southern coast to be shipped abroad year after year. “It’s a mega-project, but it's really a drop in the bucket for the unmet demand in the future,” said Nick Szymoniak, Venture Development Manager at AGDC.
Environmental groups, many aligned with Indigenous land defenders, oppose any future fossil fuel extraction from the Arctic seas, including the Center for Biological Diversity, which tried but failed to reverse federal permitting of the Alaska LNG Project in 2020.
At the symposium, the way energy executives like Szymoniak framed it, LNG would actually wean polluting countries like China off of coal by offering cheaper, cleaner energy. This is a narrative conveniently aligned with emerging Environmental, Social and Governance criteria, otherwise known as ESG, which ranks energy companies based on their zero-carbon transition models. “It's not business as usual,” said Szymoniak regarding these turning points in Alaska’s extractive timeline. “But going to market with a fully permitted project is akin to gold right now.”
For Treadwell, what may matter more than clean energy posturing is playing catch up. Since 2017, he’s watched Russian tankers go “right past us through the Bering Straits,” he told conference-goers. This is something that regional residents of the Bering Strait are keenly aware of.
“I told one of my Russian counterparts, ‘I hope you wave as you go by, but if you thumb your nose at us because you beat us to market, I wouldn't blame you,’” said Treadwell.