Bouncing his knees like a drummer pounding on a bass pedal, adjusting his tie and shifting his weight in front of the multinational crowd, James Stotts was the most visibly anxious speaker. A lifelong Alaskan born and raised in Barrow—an outpost on the state’s northern coast—he also may have been the most qualified, considering how much he has to lose.

“The Arctic policy that’s being set today actually is setting the stage for the next 100 years,” said Stotts, the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s Alaskan branch, yesterday at the Swedish embassy during a conference on the Arctic region.

Climate change is affecting Arctic towns and communities in Alaska like Shishmaref, whose residents voted in 2002 to relocate due to erosion worries, and Kivalina, which the Army Corps of Engineers estimated would cost roughly $150 million to $250 million to safely move. High suicide rates among indigenous residents, as well as food security and stable housing, are pressing concerns, Stotts said.

“Without our input, the conversation is incomplete,” he said. “You need our input.”

Led by Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council—the international body of eight Arctic-adjacent countries and indigenous communities—in April. The council’s focus is swinging away from business and economic development, priorities when Canada chaired the forum in the last two years, to climate change impacts, Stotts noted.

But, he added, decisionmakers outside the Arctic seem to be acting without considering local consequences.

“Development seems tailor-made for southern industry,” he said, noting that housing and food security are top priorities in Alaska and asking public and private-sector groups to consult local leaders before making decisions.

“What’s our piece up north there?” Stotts asked. “We’re a little skeptical.”

IMO adopts new polar shipping rules
The top American and Swedish diplomats to the Arctic spoke broadly about the need to balance Arctic energy development and exploration with environmental protection—highlighting the region’s sensitivity and biodiversity.

“Yes, the Arctic is melting, and the permafrost, as well,” said H.E. Krister Bringéus, Sweden’s Arctic ambassador. “At the heart of all this is climate change.”

U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic Adm. Robert Papp, a former commandant of the Coast Guard, recalled seeing the “ice-choked” Bering Strait on one of his first assignments after joining the service in the 1970s. Now, he said, the strait is often ice-free.

“Of course we look at it in terms of climate change,” Papp said at the top of his speech outlining priorities of the Arctic Council.

Arctic sea ice covered the lowest maximum extent this year since satellites began tracking polar ice movements in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. And the Arctic Ocean may experience an ice-free summer in two or three decades, according to some scientific estimates (ClimateWire, July 16, 2013).

Less ice and easily navigable waters could mean access to once-frozen trading routes and more money for shipping firms, which could move goods faster in thawing polar oceans.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved new measures Friday that will prohibit shippers from discharging oil or oily substances, sewage, garbage and noxious materials.

The polar code will apply to the Arctic and Antarctic regions and take effect in January 2017. It permits shippers to dump sewage at least 12 nautical miles from land and omits regulatory plans to clean up after an oil spill. In a blow to environmentalists, it does not ban heavy fuel oil use by Arctic vessels.

“A major oil spill in the Arctic would be much more severe than in the open ocean,” Bringéus said.

Swedish officials want to see a stronger environmental focus among Arctic Council members, he added, noting that the recent slump in oil prices may be a reason to reconsider fossil energy exploration in the Arctic.

“Maybe, in fact, we have been given a sort of mental pause,” he said. “In that case, we should use it.”

Drilling plans from Canada to Russia
Last week, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management signed off on Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s plans to drill a maximum of six wells in the Chukchi Sea, about 70 miles off northwest Alaska. At the corporation’s annual meeting in the Netherlands yesterday, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said the organization has pursued “tremendous lengths” to mitigate drilling risks.

Robert Huebert, an Arctic expert and political science professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, said drilling in the Arctic is a matter of time.

“The debate is: How should we do it?” he said yesterday.

Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company, called off drilling operations with Exxon Mobil Corp. earlier this year, under pressure from Western sanctions in response to conflict in Ukraine. In April, however, Rosneft announced it would resume drilling in the Kara Sea in 2016. Imperial Oil Ltd., headquartered in Calgary, has filed paperwork with federal Canadian authorities to drill within that nation’s Arctic jurisdiction, as well.

ConocoPhillips Co. and Chevron Corp. had active leases in the Chukchi or Beaufort seas as of March 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, as did foreign oil and gas extractors Eni, Total and Statoil.

BOEM conducts its offshore oil and gas leasing process in five-year windows. The current leasing period will end in 2017.

Reporter Christa Marshall contributed.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500