Thanks to technological advancements, like Russia's creation of the world's largest icebreaker Arktika, oil and natural gas reserves beneath the Arctic waters are easier to access than ever before. As a result, the Arctic now has countries racing to emerge as leaders in the world's newest Great Game. But as major powers struggle not only against each other, red tape, legal hurdles and other challenges back home are causing the United States to lag behind in unlocking the Arctic's riches.
In a recent move, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Ross Hopper announced a new approach to oil and gas leasing for offshore areas. The proposal, which until recently accepted comments from the public, includes one possible sale each in the Alaskan Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet planning areas and, unfortunately, it also includes the possibility of no new leasing off of Alaska's shores altogether — to the detriment of U.S. energy security.
Not only would this possibility be harmful to Alaska's economy, but it could harm U.S. downfall energy security as other countries, like Russia and China, stake their claim in the Arctic.
According to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal states are "entitled to exploit the seabed and subsoil up to a distance of 200 miles from its territorial sea baselines as part of the regime of the exclusive economic zone." Therefore, only eight countries have a direct right to the far north, including Russia and the U.S. And in their quest of Arctic domination, Russia has established six new bases, including 16 deepwater ports and 13 airfields. Putin's reach has even gone so far as to have planted a Russian flag under the North Pole in 2007.
Although Russia's moves may seem unreasonable, in reality their games are smart attempts to establish claim to the expansive oil and gas reserves available in the Arctic. The U.S. Energy Department has reported that an astonishing 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil — or 90 billion barrels — is in the Arctic, as well as 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas. At this moment, the U.S. has an opportunity to thwart the iron Russia's efforts and lock in these natural resources. But without the proposed leasing options in Alaska, these opportunities will soon dwindle to nonexistence and Russia will gain access to growing oil and natural resources.
The connection between Alaskan offshore leases and U.S. national security should not be overlooked. In short, Alaskan offshore leases could secure a stable source of energy for the U.S., while also helping our foreign allies who are dependent upon unstable sources of energy from the Middle East and Russia. The consequential geopolitical impacts of Alaska's offshore leases were further stressed in a recent letter by some of our nation's foreign policy and national security leaders. Specifically, the 16 former officials, including former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and former Supreme Allied Commander and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Ralston, emphasized the growing strategic significance of the Arctic and the important role that the private sector will play in thwarting Russia expansion into the region, whose practice of soft-power techniques, such as leveraging energy resources, influence foreign policy.
History has proven this concept to be true by example of Russia turning off midwinter gas shipments to foreign countries like Ukraine (first in 2005-2006 and then again in 2009). This use of energy as a political weapon not only adversely affects Ukrainians, but also 12 other European countries and Turkey, which rely upon the gas that runs through two major pipelines from Russia through Ukraine.
Russia's grandiose claims in the Arctic, combined with their penchant for using energy as a political weapon, underscores the alarming implications of their activity in the north. In order to hinder Russia's efforts towards energy domination in North America, the U.S. should move forward with the offshore oil and gas leases in Alaska. The offshore leases are not just an Alaska issue, but a national security one, as it affects all Americans who wish to see the U.S. as a leader in energy.
Guy F. Caruso served as the U.S. Energy Information Administration's administrator from 2002-2008. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.