Exclusive: Interview with U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski

Photo: U.S. Department of State
Senator Murkowski speaks to Secretary of State Kerry. Photo: U.S. Department of State

One of the most knowledgeable and vocal advocates of increased American activity in the Arctic, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) just returned from this week’s Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians in Ottawa, Canada. She has also recently spoken out against some of the recent developments in U.S. Arctic policy, namely the State Department’s announcement in January that it would create the position of a “Special Representative” for the Arctic region instead of a full Ambassador position. Murkowski also recently called the White House’s January 2014 implementation plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic “unambitious,” as it “did not offer a vision to make the United States a leader in the Arctic, particularly as we prepare for the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May 2015, nor does it suggest that the Arctic is a national priority.”

Yesterday, I spoke with U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) by phone to ask her a few questions about the Special Representative for the Arctic, where she sees the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship going, and where Alaska is looking for its own development.

Could you elaborate on why the Special Representative position for the Arctic is not enough?

I’m not sure if it’s really enough. That’s why I want to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry. We all understand what the title “Ambassador” means and where that person sits. “Special Representative” is less clear, less certain. I don’t know what authorities the person will have. Will it be on par with an ambassador? Almost all other Arctic nations have an Arctic ambassador. Then you have others, like Singapore, that have one. So when we say that this is our special representative, is this someone from the State Department with a portfolio, or are we talking about someone with a level of stature, a budget, staff, and the ability to travel? You know from covering the Arctic that there are so many conferences around the world.

What will the position entail? I’ve been pressing this administration, and before with the Bush administration, to appoint an Ambassador to the Arctic. I’m pleased that Kerry has come around because when I first approached him, folks in the [State] Department were very negative. We’ve come a long way, but I also want to ensure this title would carry a level of authority.

What are some potential themes you see for the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship? How will the U.S. differentiate itself from Canada?

I want to make sure that we capitalize on the work Canada is doing in its chairmanship. We should try to build on it rather than say, okay, Canada did this, now let’s do this stuff. It’s important to dovetail.

I had dinner on Sunday with Leona Aglukkaq, the current Arctic Council chair. It was just the two of us with our chief. I was extremely contented to hear from her about what she’s trying to do as chair and how to build on it. She’s focusing on indigenous peoples of the North to ensure that they have a level of economic opportunity. She’s focusing on creating an Arctic Economic Forum to build out and develop the economy and bring more jobs. We should be thinking about it as well, if the Arctic Economic Forum is put in place: How do we build off the initiative and make sure that innovation follows? [The next Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians] is in Whitehorse in early September. I’m leading a discussion on responsible resource development, furthering out how we build on stronger economies in the Arctic. I know Aglukkaq’s focused on this.

If you look at the administration’s Arctic Implementation Program, there’s a very heavy focus on climate. Climate’s always been an issue we’ve dealt with at the Arctic Council; I’ve been to two ministerials. But it’s not the only issue. I’m hoping that the U.S. chairmanship is not defined solely by climate. It can absolutely be one of the pieces, but it’s important to recognize economic opportunities for the people of the North and how we respond to heightened activities, maritime and commercial developments, governance, health – there’s so much at play and so many issues. Let’s use our chairmanship to take a leadership role in more than just one area.

Is Alaska looking more east, to Canada, or west, to Russia and Asia, for its Arctic development?

It depends on what we’re talking about. For shipping, it’s not the Northwest Passage, but the Northern Sea Route where there is increased activity. So there’s more activity with Russia. With mapping, we’re working with Canada and doing great things with them cooperatively. In terms of standards for development, there’s also a fair amount of partnering with Canada. But you only have to look at the project with Exxon and Rosneft [1].

One thing I’m always encouraged by when joining with my fellow Arctic parliamentarians is the willingness to discuss issues we have in common. Norway, for instance, is maintaining a strong fishing industry while developing its oil and gas. [We can see] what they’ve done as a nation. We share our mistakes, but we also share our successes. With an environment like you have in the Arctic, there’s more and more interaction with neighbors, and we’re seeing good interaction in lots of ways. Alaska is not confined by land borders. It’s the water and ice that glue us together at the top of the world, and there’s good dynamics at the top of the world.

[1] Last year, Rosneft announced that it might participate in ExxonMobil’s gas condensate project in Point Thomson, Alaska, on the North Slope.

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