Earlier this week, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative program hosted a panel discussion entitled The North American Arctic: Building a Vision for Regional Collaboration. The event focused on a broad range of problems that affect the Arctic region, with particular focus on lack of infrastructure development in the U.S. Arctic. In Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) keynote speech, she stressed the significance of investing in the Arctic, emphasizing cooperation with the private sector to accomplish this endeavor.
Sen. Murkowski discussed the striking difference between development in the North American and Nordic Arctic regions noting,
“Development and infrastructure levels differ greatly… it’s effectively two Arctics. A greater focus on regional development might help create economies of scale with areas with similar needs.”
Too often, policymakers view the Arctic myopically and create policy agendas that reflect that perspective. Murkowski stressed that politicians in Washington need to understand that every activity in the region is highly interconnected and they all impact each other in a big way; thus, a failure in one field will negatively affect all of the others. Responsible energy development is a part of that puzzle. By excluding energy production in the interest of a singular agenda, policymakers are truly failing to see how closely intertwined activities are in the region.
As Murkowski highlighted, Arctic policy agendas cannot be made with a single issue focus:
“Whether it is economic development, research activities, investments in infrastructure or environmental stewardship, they’re all interconnected…and what happens in one activity can be cross-fertilized in other activities as well.”
Increased infrastructure in the American Arctic, such as port development, impacts local communities by providing jobs, greater access to services and goods, and reducing the cost of living. Private sector investment in the region, specifically from energy development, has proven to be a catalyst for creating and improving infrastructure in these rural communities and ultimately improving quality of life for residents. Private sector investment supplementing federal efforts is crucial to accomplishing these goals, as Murkowski notes the difficulty in attracting federal infrastructure investment to the region,
“As challenging as building out infrastructure can be in a place like Alaska or other regions of the Arctic where we are infrastructure poor, I think this should challenge us to be thinking more holistically. How can this benefit us moving forward, truly, into the future? Infrastructure investment is a subject we are talking about a lot here in Washington, D.C…and we need to make sure that Arctic infrastructure is part of that discussion.”
Convincing lawmakers to fund the construction of expensive, rural infrastructure projects in the Arctic is not an easy sell – regardless of how vital the project. However, private sector cooperation in the region can attract the attention of lawmakers, providing enough support to help these infrastructure projects reach fruition. As Murkowski states,
“Right now our numbers just don’t look that appealing, but when we are talking about infrastructure to benefit a nation, to benefit a region, we cannot and must not overlook Arctic infrastructure, and it is also inherent on the residents of the Arctic to not simply depend on our Federal Government to provide for that investment, but to look for additional paths forward including public, private partnerships…”
By prohibiting or limiting energy development in Arctic waters, U.S. policymakers are failing to see the holistic approach that is needed when addressing the region. As Senator Murkowski noted, a single issue approach to the Arctic will only hinder scientific research, economic development, and infrastructure investment; negatively impacting local Arctic communities and our nation as a whole.