Former Sec. Panetta Misses the Mark on Arctic Development

May 17, 2017 in Blog, Featured

The recent reversal of the Arctic offshore development ban by President Trump has opened the door to a number of benefits through offshore oil and natural gas production in the region, including infrastructure development, increased economic opportunities, and improved energy and national security.

Nonetheless, some have attacked the President’s decision. Critics include former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who argues in a recent op-ed that Arctic offshore development will threaten national security:

“Indeed, there is a strong consensus among defense and intelligence leaders that the Arctic is critical to our national security. It then stands to reason we should not take steps that will exacerbate the threat to Arctic resources and global security by drilling in a strategic and environmentally sensitive part of the world.”

With all due respect to former Secretary Panetta, his position runs contrary to a majority of the other security experts who have spoken on the issue.  As Donald Loren, former Rear Admiral of the U.S. Navy and former Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, said at a Brookings Institute event in November:

“Developing Alaska oil and natural gas resource not only protects our interests in the Arctic, but will also provide us the energy security and flexibility to further reduce our reliance on adversarial nations.”

In fact, when the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2017-2022 was still open for public comment last June, a letter from 16 former high-ranking US military officials – who collectively hold 58 stars – urged the Department of the Interior to open the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to offshore development. With signatories including former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and former Supreme Allied Commander and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Ralston, the document stressed the importance of Arctic development for national security:

“The White House, Defense Department and Coast Guard strategies for the Arctic depend on government and private sector cooperation, including private investments in Arctic infrastructure to provide presence and to share costs, resources and expertise.”

Secretary Panetta also claims that expanding oil and gas development in the Arctic “would be an invitation to other nations to engage in the same kind of exploitation.” The former secretary fails to acknowledge the increase in Russian Arctic development despite economic sanctions, or that plans to develop in Norway’s Arctic waters are already underway with the country offering access to 87 areas in the latest annual licensing round.  As Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said in April, “Oil and gas will be developed in the region – whether by our nation or others.”

Finally Secretary Panetta cites the challenges posed by current infrastructure shortages in the region, as a reason to forgo Arctic development, stating:

“The Arctic is characterized by a lack of existing infrastructure and rough and unpredictable ice caps that make drilling extremely challenging. Even the oil companies themselves recognize the risks and believe there are safer and more stable areas for development that can maintain our nation’s energy security.”

This claim is a self-fulfilling prophecy; as the largest economic driver in the region, the oil and gas industry represents the most effective vehicle for the creation of new infrastructure. Indeed a recent report from the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure found, the ban implemented by former President Obama which barred development from taking place effective stalled an estimated $6.3 billion in critical Arctic investment projects.

Given Secretary Panetta’s background, it’s clear that the intention of his op-ed – a call for maintaining national security – is genuine; but opposing offshore production in the Arctic is not a way to achieve this goal. Offshore oil and gas development in the US Arctic is overwhelmingly supported by the defense community as a means to bolster national security, as it brings with it vital infrastructure development, significant economic benefits and improved energy security.  Therefore, the only way to truly ensure national security in this critical region is to allow expanded Arctic offshore development to thrive.