BARROW, ALASKA--There is a battle at the top of the world for oil and minerals, and many observers of this competition in the Arctic believe the United States is lagging far behind.
"In some ways, we're not even in the race," said Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.
"If we're not there, it is up to the Russians and the Canadians to set the rules. If we're not more aggressive in the Arctic, we're missing the boat," he added in an interview with GlobalPost.
At stake are what economists predict could be trillions of dollars in profit in the coming decades, not only for the oil companies but also in the form of revenue for the state and the small villages and towns of native populations that stand to benefit. And, as Treadwell points out, there are lots of jobs in Alaska and elsewhere that come with those profits as well.
There is also a gain to be had in global diplomacy, a chance for the Arctic nations to work together or risk splintering into hostility. And, of course, there is the fate of a delicate ecosystem that the planet needs to stay cool amid the perils of global warming.
Despite the extraordinary opportunity--and peril--that the Arctic represents, there are many leaders in business, government and the environment who throw up their hands in frustration at the failure of successive American administrations--Republican and Democrat--to understand the Arctic's potential.
Iceland President Olafur Grimsson, with silver hair and a well-tailored suit, has worked tirelessly to develop the Arctic Council as a strong international body that can work together productively and someday have the weight and clout of other major international alliances, such as NATO and ASEAN.
Speaking before the Arctic Imperative Summit in Girdwood, Alaska, in late August, Grimsson was openly frustrated about the failure of the United States to see the potential in the Arctic for nations to come together to protect the environment and create a responsible climate for investments in tapping much-needed oil and natural gas reserves. The Chinese and the Russians, he said, are way ahead of the United States in understanding this and moving to secure deals in the other Arctic nations, including his own.
"It will take a long time and great effort for the U.S. to become as active as China is now in the Arctic. To be as active as Russia will take even longer time. I don't know how to move Washington further on this issue."
"I don't see how the U.S. is going to conduct a comprehensive foreign policy without being a leader of the Arctic," he added.
The historic melting of the Arctic, which is widely viewed to be caused by global warming, has unlocked shipping lanes and opened up the potential for tapping huge oil reserves that lie beneath the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
Yet, right now, there is not a single deep-water port from Dutch Harbor to Barrow that can handle large freight and oil vessels. Russia and Canada and virtually all of the nations of the Arctic Council, except the United States, have prepared their ports for the coming increase in activity.
The U.S. Coast Guard is not equipped to handle the surge in shipping and oil exploration and openly concedes it is not adequately prepared to respond in the event of a catastrophic oil spill like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout. The Coast Guard also concedes that it has only one ice cutter, which is old and in need of repair, compared to Russia, which has 20 ice breakers to assist ships passing through these waters.