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Fed-bashing continues at Arctic-focused economic conference

Alex DeMarban
Elected officials from Alaska wondered this week at a cross-border conference if the U.S. might hand off resource management to the state, as Canada did ahead of a mining rush for diamonds, rare earth elements, and oil and gas in the Northwest Territories. Loren Holmes photo

Alaska needs to follow in Canada's footsteps and wrestle land ownership and decision-making from the feds to promote development and protect the the Arctic, the lieutenant governor said at a cross-border conference on Thursday.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell's comments came at the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region's summit luncheon in Anchorage, a gathering where Canadian officials highlighted the economic benefits of an ongoing power shift from the feds in Canada to territorial governments working with aboriginal leaders.

The Canadian feds have willingly handed off resource management to the Northwest Territories, and are close to finalizing a deal to let the territories control oil development in the offshore Beaufort Sea, said Premier Bob McLeod, government leader for the territories.

The region is rich in diamonds, rare earth minerals, oil and natural gas, and is moving forward aggressively to become an "energy giant," he said. The federal government is providing critical support, and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a road to the Arctic coast and other new infrastructure to support growth, said McLeod, a keynote speaker at the luncheon.

A similar power transition took place in the Yukon Territories starting decades ago -- a process known as devolution -- and now that region boasts Canada's hottest economy, said McLeod.      

In Alaska, the relationship between the state and feds isn't so cordial.  

Treadwell and other Alaska leaders at the summit, angered by a U.S. government that owns two-thirds of the state and which they believe has blocked progress, envied the territory's increasing ability to develop its resources.

"The federal government has in one way or another not done a very good job of getting its act together to get our public lands into production and into state hands," said Treadwell.

The lack of attention means other countries are lapping the U.S. in the race to develop the Arctic, state officials said.

As he spoke, Treadwell said, two Norwegian oil tankers were making their way to the Bering Strait to get product to Asia.

Unlike ships in U.S. waters, they aren't required to comply with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that sets requirements to prevent and clean up spills.

A spill in foreign waters could reach the U.S. and threaten Native subsistence foods, without the ships being held accountable by that law. "They aren't required to do the same sort of contingency planning," said Treadwell. "They won't have to go to talk to the Northwest Arctic Borough if they have an incident."

Fed-bashing is a favorite sport of Alaska politicians like Treadwell, who is gunning for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, whom Treadwell might face should he win next year’s Republican primary, held a press conference on Friday. In response to a reporter's questions about the Arctic, he said that he's "not been bashful about taking on the administration when they're not doing enough" to encourage development in the Far North.

Begich said he's pushed the administration to open development in the region, and has seen promising results. For example, the White House has moved from doing little in the Arctic to releasing an Arctic strategy and allowing exploration by Royal Dutch Shell (an effort Shell put on hold this summer after the winter grounding of the Kulluk rig). Also, more money has been set aside for the Arctic, including for research and the U.S. Coast Guard's retrofit of an icebreaker brought back into service this summer.  

PNWER consists of leaders from U.S. states and Canadian territories and provinces who come together to address economic issues in the Pacific northwest region and the Arctic. With the multi-day meeting in Alaska this year, the Arctic drew extra attention, though discussions covered everything from natural gas extraction to storing energy in batteries for remote communities.

Rep. Bob Herron and Sen. Lesil McGuire co-chair the group's Arctic caucus. The summit helped form important partnerships with "our northern neighbors to deliver the message to the U.S. federal government that we need to catch up on Arctic policy," said McGuire said in a written statement.

To improve maritime safety in the strait, PNWER can help facilitate a dialogue involving Canada and Russia, Treadwell told the conference.  

Treadwell also suggested that the state should set up a committee to pursue the "D-word," as he called devolution, to gain more control of federal lands in Alaska. Idaho, for example, has set up a committee to study devolution in an effort to increase state control, Treadwell said.   

After his speech, Treadwell noted that the state's biggest opposition to gaining more control of its resources would be national conservation groups. On stage during the keynote luncheon, Treadwell asked the Northwest Territories premier how they overcame such opposition.

McLeod said the national conservation community in Canada made a concerted effort to stop devolution. But territories were successful thanks to a combination of federal government support, visits with every community that showed most people supported the idea, and the backing of most aboriginal governments.

"We always said devolution would not negatively impact on land claims, (that) we were not taking land away from any aboriginal government," he said.

"The (conservation groups) thought we'd sell our soul to the devil, and provide for development at any costs," McLeod said. "That is certainly not our view."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com