Analysis

America Wakes Up to the Arctic’s Potential

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues “the Arctic has an increasing geopolitical importance.”

Russian Arctic tanker
A United States Coast Guard icebreaker escorts a Russian tanker through the Bering Strait, January 6 (Coast Guard)

In a sign that America is taking the enormous economic potential and future geopolitical challenges of the Arctic region seriously, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Norwegian city of Tromsø on Saturday.

“From a strategic standpoint, the Arctic has an increasing geopolitical importance as countries vie to protect their rights and extend their influence,” she told reporters in Oslo before heading for Tromsø, where she was accompanied by Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre.

The visit comes two months after Norway and Cold War rival Russia agreed to improve military relations and expand cooperation in their Arctic lands.

Russia has the largest Arctic territory by far, second to Canada. The United States, courtesy of Alaska, is an Arctic power, but it has done little to advance its interests in the region.

Falling behind

Norway aims to convert one of its High North battalions into a dedicated Arctic brigade comprising naval units and special forces.

Russia has announced plans to create an armored Arctic brigade of its own on the Kola Peninsula.

The Canadians have similar plans for military deployment above the Arctic Circle.

The United States Coast Guard, by contrast, operates just three icebreakers, two of which are antiquated and slated to be retired.

Cold war

American soldiers have participated regularly in Norway’s Cold Response exercise, which draws participation from many NATO member states.

This saber rattling has caused consternation in Moscow, Wikistrat’s Graham O’Brien told the Atlantic Sentinel last month. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said he believes NATO has no place in the Arctic.

In Cold War fashion, Russia has resumed patrolling the Arctic region with bomber planes and warships. It has also invested more than a billion dollars in the expansion of the northern port of Murmansk, which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.

Oil and gas

Even as tension is mounting, America’s ExxonMobil is working with Russia’s state-owned oil and gas company Rosneft to exploit reserves in the Kara Sea, off Siberia, where sea is present up to three hundred days per year.

Russia’s Gazprom is also working with Total of France and Norway’s Statoil in the Shtokman gasfield, east of Novaya Zemlya.

Climate change is expected to make drilling for oil and gas easier. The Arctic could contain 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Combined, these figures amount to 22 percent of the planet’s untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons.