Decision 2016: Clinton’s Arctic

By Richard Clifford

As the ‘Decision 2016article on the regional implications of a Trump Presidency outlined, this November’s election is a seminal moment for the Arctic’s future. Clinton and Trump would take US policy on Arctic issues in two divergent directions; and it will be the winner who is tasked with charting the future course of American Arctic policy. This article will focus on Hillary Clinton, examining her campaign’s position and speculating what impact her Presidency would have on the Arctic.

Clinton’s Position on Climate Change

Climate change is the greatest threat to the Arctic, and its effects are both apparent and occurring increasingly quickly. As stated during her speech at the 2016 Democratic convention, Clinton ‘believes in climate change’; and on this basis alone, she is a preferable candidate to Trump for environmentalists. Looking at Clinton’s political record, it is clear that in the Senate and as Secretary of State, Clinton has been a strong advocate of climate action. As Senator for New York, Clinton co-authored Bills in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007 designed to curb US Co2 emissions. In 2005, Clinton was one of only 26 Senators to vote against the Energy Policy Act 2005, which the League of Conservation at the time labeled the ‘most anti-environment Bill in recent memory.’ As Secretary of State 2008-2012, Clinton appointed a special envoy for climate change in the State Department, while also leading sustained global efforts – for example, entering into 11 Eco-partnership agreements with China.

Despite Clinton’s strong environmental record, she has come under criticism and scrutiny over her commitment to countering climate change. This was brought to national attention during the Democratic primaries when Bernie Sanders raised issue with Clinton’s receipt of donations from the fossil fuel industry. Closer examination shows that during this Presidential cycle, Clinton has received $1 million in direct contribution from oil and gas companies. This, along with a noticeable drop in references to climate change following Clinton’s nomination, has fueled concerns further regarding her commitment to climate change action.

Clinton has not lost enthusiasm for tackling the issue, and the decline in references to climate change is a political move. Only 17% of people rank the environment as a top-tier issue as per a recent study; and as experienced political strategist David Axelrod stated on climate change: ‘If I’m in her campaign, I don’t want to hand a cudgel to the other side. Clinton’s position is clear, even if it is not a central part of her campaign’s appeal: The United States must tackle climate change as a matter of urgency. The Obama administration has made good incremental progress on issues of climate change; however, it is the next President who will be tasked with building upon this and making substantial gains. A Clinton Presidency would do just that while protecting both the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement. Global efforts to counter climate change need strong US leadership. Based on this, Clinton is the candidate likelier to act positively in this regard.

Energy Policy and Arctic Drilling

Clinton’s campaign has proposed radical reforms to American energy policy, looking to turn America into the ‘clean energy superpower of the 21st century.’ This will be accomplished through an unprecedented shift towards renewable energy sources. On entering office, Clinton has pledged to embark on two ambitious efforts which would mark a historic change in American energy policy. First, by the end of Clinton’s first term, she will ensure that the United States will have more than half a billion solar panels installed across the country, and second, she will start the process to generate enough clean renewable energy to power every home in America by 2026. The campaign hopes that this shift towards renewables will help cut American oil consumption by up to a third, supplemented by efforts to cut energy waste and make more efficient boilers, car engines and ships. Pledges have also been made to cut subsidies for oil and gas companies, which Clinton suggests have had things ‘too good for too long.’

Clinton’s commitment to curbing fossil fuel emissions with renewable energy comes alongside her commitment to protect vulnerable public lands. This is bad news for those hoping for increasing Arctic oil developments. The Arctic is estimated to have a huge amount of natural resources, with the oft-cited US Geological Survey from 2008 estimating that 90 billion barrels of oil and 1669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are available under the Arctic’s ice. There is a strong desire from some, including Clinton’s opponent, to develop Arctic resources in pursuit of achieving energy independence. While Clinton claimed during the second Presidential debate that the United States had achieved energy independence, this is not yet the case, with the US still importing oil from abroad, including the Middle East. While any President would see the virtues of energy independence from Middle Eastern sources, Clinton has ruled out Arctic resources as a means of achieving this.

Clinton has stated in 2015:The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it is not worth the risk of drilling. This stance marks a rare departure from the Obama administration on Arctic and environmental affairs. The Obama administration, which has been attacked for being anti-energy, listed sites in the Chukchi Basin in an early draft by the Interior Department between 2017 and 2022. Clinton’s aversion to Arctic drilling is based on both a desire to move away from fossil fuels but also on the potential dangers of an oil spill in the Arctic. Remoteness, extreme weather, lack of appropriate equipment and scarce daylight each pose major difficulties for Arctic clean-up operations. A 2014 report by the National Research Council found that “USCG personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation, and safety resources needed for oil spill response are not adequate for overseeing oil spill response in the Arctic.” Such restrictions highlight the dangers of cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic; and Clinton sees greater exploration as too great a risk.

Alaska Concerns

Ruling out future resource exploration may be the most prudent thing to do for the environment; however, this will come as a major disappointment to those who want permission to develop the State’s resources. For the United States, only 7% of its overall oil production comes from Alaska; however, for the State, 90% of its revenue comes from taxes on oil and gas. Alaska’s politicians have been frustrated by the restrictions imposed on them by the Obama administration. Senator Lisa Murkowski in 2015 described Obama’s restrictions in the region as ‘a stunning attack on our sovereignty.‘ Given that Clinton has proposed more restrictions on Arctic drilling, it is clear that this would be extremely unpopular among those in favour of developing Alaska resources. With the Alaska electorate, the Trump ticket’s support for less regulation and increased drilling is a contributing factor for their lead in most polls. Alaska has voted for the Republican presidential candidate without fail since 1964; and come election night, it will be no surprise to see Alaska vote Republican once again.

A Clinton presidency is likelier to continue with a recent push to improve infrastructure in the Arctic in line with the recommendations made by the US Committee on Marine Transport (CMT) in May 2016. The CMT recommendations were based on improving US Arctic physical and information infrastructure capabilities in order to advance US security, pursue responsible stewardship and strengthen cooperation among states. Recommendations include improving climate monitoring, improving port quality and also expanding icebreaking capabilities. Improving regional infrastructure is essential to respond and adapt to new Arctic opportunities and challenges.

Greater Arctic engagement and recognition of Alaska interests have grown within US politics in recent years – for example, with the foundation of the Congressional Arctic Working Group. The United States has a 700-mile border with the Arctic Ocean; and changes within this region impact many states, not just Alaska. The Clinton administration should continue with the promotion of Arctic issues beyond Alaska. Recent efforts from the State of Maine to lead US Arctic engagement have received encouragement from the Obama administration, with the Arctic Council summit being hosted in the state. Promoting engagement from proximate states would be effective in raising awareness of issues and preparedness for developments.

Indigenous Populations

Decisions taken on the future of the Arctic should not be taken without consideration of the rights of Alaska’s Indigenous population. Alaska is home to 229 federally-recognised tribes who are already impacted in their everyday lives by climate change. As Arctic temperatures warm, the ecosystems upon which many natives rely economically, nutritionally and culturally are affected. Alaskan communities also face threats from saltwater intrusion and sewage contamination of their drinking sources. Coastal erosion is a major problem, with more than 30 coastal villages eroding or in the process of doing so. Residents and communities have to make a difficult choice between investing in coastal defence units or relocating whole villages. The cost of both is incredibly high; relocation of Shishmaref, a small village of 600 people, has been estimated to cost upwards of $180 million.

High levels of government funding are essential to address this issue; and as with a number of climate initiatives, Clinton should look to follow the lead of her predecessor. The Obama administration has looked to address this in the President’s 2017 Budget proposal. The budget stipulates the establishment of a climate resilience fund at the DOI, with $400 million set aside for Alaska. Money has also been set aside for the Denali Commission which will coordinate across federal, state and tribal levels. Finally, $100 million will be granted across agencies to build capacity in Alaska’s villages. Fulfilling this commitment to Alaska communities is essential in protecting them from the effects of climate change. It is even more important if the US follows Clinton’s energy plan and begins its move away from oil as an energy source. It is currently oil industry revenues providing communities with much of the revenue to combat changes.

Fossil fuels may be the source of global climate change; however, for Alaska towns, oil and gas are the lifeblood of the community. For the inhabitants of the North Slope Borough, for example, cuts in oil and gas essentially mean cuts in revenue and jobs for the 10,000 residents. The region currently derives around £300 million a year in taxes from onshore oil operations. Many of the residents of the North Slope Borough are from the Iñupiat tribe, members of which formed the Arctic Iñupiat Offshore in 2014. This organisation has recently joined the Arctic Coalition, a group of 21 Alaska and national groups who want to extend responsible energy development. While climate advocates see this as ‘circular logic,’ oil industry jobs are clearly essential in the region. Clinton has committed to helping coal communities in the United States address the transition from fossil fuel, and similar levels of investment would likely be required in Alaska communities where reliance on oil revenue is as, if not more, extreme.

Arctic Security Developments

The main threat to Arctic cooperation would be an Arctic State looking to expand their maritime boundaries without lawful permission under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Given Russian activities in other theaters, there is fear among Arctic states that they may adopt an aggressive posture in the region. Russia, as of December 2015, has 6 equipped military bases north of the Arctic Circle; and its military presence north of the Arctic Circle has reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War.

Despite the potential for Arctic security competition, the stated preference of all Arctic states including America is for cooperation. Under the Obama administration, despite wider geopolitical issues, cooperation in the Arctic has deepened. This September, the White House hosted its first Arctic Science Ministerial Meeting aimed at promoting greater cooperation on issues like data sharing, building resilience to climate change in the region and strengthening Arctic monitoring capabilities. Clinton, as Secretary of State, worked on collaboration on issues of search and rescue and oil spills, and, as President, would look to continue with cooperation when possible.

Clinton has, throughout her career, taken a strong approach against Russian expansionism; and during her campaign, she has presented a strong position on issues of Russia and Putin. Were Russia to act in a way that distorts current Arctic conventions, Clinton would take a strong stance. Clinton has a hawkish foreign policy record and is unafraid of flexing US military capabilities to warn other states. Were Russia perceived to be taking an expansionist policy in the Arctic, based on her previous foreign policy record, there is no doubt Clinton would assume a tough line against it. In an interview with NPR in 2013, Clinton stated that while cooperation in the Arctic should be pursued, certain lines could not be crossed.

The next President will oversee a transition from chairing the Arctic Council to handing this position to Finland. The United States must continue to work with Finland and Arctic states to ensure continuity and continued cooperation on Arctic affairs. During the United States chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the US has focused on STEM education and its potential in both Alaska and the wider region. As part of the handover, Finland and the United States will collaborate to organise an international Arctic STEM educational summit during Finland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. STEM education was one of 4 major focuses in the White House Ministerial in 2016. The United States is looking to build upon this both through advancing STEM education in Alaska with the Local Environmental Observer Network and also with the other Arctic states building on progress from the Ministerial to promote a legacy of formal and informal STEM education.

The Arctic has a number of issues that must be resolved by the next President; and a Clinton presidency is likely to be more equipped to deal with them than a Trump presidency. A Clinton presidency would protect Obama’s climate initiatives globally and build on his actions regionally in a comprehensive way. For environmentalists, a Clinton presidency would be a major victory moving away from fossil fuels while also pledging to defend Arctic land from increased drilling. Alaska communities would receive funding to respond to climate change developments; however, under Clinton, no new leases would be granted for Arctic exploration. Clinton would continue with the United States position of cooperation with other Arctic states, including Russia; however, she is more inclined than her predecessor to take a firm stance against perceived militarisation.

Richard Clifford is an Associate in the Geopolitics and Security Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is completing an MSc in Defence, Development and Diplomacy at Durham University and has an undergraduate degree in History and International Relations from the London School of Economics. Richard has experience working as a open source conflict analyst at Intelligence Fusion and his research interest centres mainly on Russian foreign policy in addition to geopolitical and security issues in the Arctic.