Skip to main content

Why we should look to the Arctic

By Bob Reiss, Special to CNN
July 16, 2012 -- Updated 1717 GMT (0117 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shell is planning to drill 70 miles north of Alaska to see whether 27 billion barrels of oil are there
  • Bob Reiss: For America, the stakes are huge in the Arctic
  • He says opening of the region could cheapen price of gas and products from Asia
  • Reiss: If you want the U.S. to remain strong and dominant in the world, look to the north

Editor's note: Bob Reiss, a former reporter at the Chicago Tribune, is the author of 18 books, including the just published, "The Eskimo and the Oil Man." He can be seen this week on CNN as part of the "Erin Burnett OutFront" series on the Arctic at 7 pm ET.

(CNN) -- Most Americans think of the Arctic as an icy, distant place; beautiful, remote and teeming with wildlife, but unrelated to their daily lives. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This summer, big doings on America's northern doorstep will have enormous consequences to the economic, strategic and environmental future of the nation. Yet we are unprepared for the challenges and opportunities.

What happens in the Arctic as ice melts there could soon cheapen the cost of the gas you buy and products you purchase from Asia. It could help make the nation more energy independent. It could draw our leaders into a conflict over undersea territory. It is already challenging Washington to protect millions of square miles filled with some of the most magnificent wildlife on Earth, and native people whose culture and way of life is at risk as a squall line of development sweeps across the once inaccessible top of the planet.

Opinion: It's time to develop our Arctic resources

Bob Reiss
Bob Reiss

For America, the stakes are huge: A chance to gain wealth and global influence in the newest geopolitical playing field, but there is also potential environmental and security disaster if looming challenges are mishandled or ignored.

If that sounds farfetched, consider the following:

-- Shell is poised to sink exploratory wells -- temporary ones drilled from ships -- 70 miles north of Alaska in a few weeks. The operation will assess whether an estimated 27 billion barrels of oil is there. This is roughly three times the amount that has been extracted from the Gulf of Mexico over the past 20 years.

Cold Wars: Battle for Arctic oil

Shell Oil ship slips anchor; incident raises questions about Arctic drilling plan

Proponents believe a discovery would cut America's dependence on foreign oil and provide jobs and needed revenue to the Treasury Department. They say the oil could be extracted safely. Opponents fear a spill would be a disaster, being difficult to clean up in icy seas. More oil companies wait in the wings and also own offshore leases.

-- In Washington, politicians are jockeying over whether to ratify "The Law of the Sea Treaty," under which countries abutting oceans will be able to claim up to 200 extra miles of undersea territory if they can prove it an extension of their continental shelves. For the U.S., that could mean extra territory the size of California off Alaska.

President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush support the treaty, as does an oddly aligned group including the Pentagon, Sierra Club, oil companies, shipping companies and environmentalists, who favor the part of the treaty designed to help protect the world's oceans. Although every other Arctic country has ratified the treaty, in the U.S. it has been blocked for years by conservative senators who fear that it gives too much influence to multinational bodies.

-- An undersea land rush has started under the treaty, with Russia claiming an area the size of France and Spain combined. Norway's claim has been granted, and other Arctic nations preparing to file claims. One U.S. Coast Guard admiral, speaking of the treaty, told me, "If this was a ball game, the U.S. wouldn't be on the field, in the stadium or even in the parking lot. We're last in this race."

-- The Russian military has identified the Arctic as one of the likely places for conflict to erupt in the 21st century over resources. Even if actual combat never occurs, whoever controls the high north will wield enormous influence in the coming decades.

Russia has 18 working icebreakers. The U.S. has one. Russia is opening their Arctic sea lanes to commercial shipping. The U.S. has no permanent Coast Guard or Naval presence yet in the high north, although both branches of the service are preparing to move north.

Naval war games last fall anticipated security challenges in the near future: how to deal with terrorists in the Arctic, how to deal with a rogue ship carrying nuclear weapons in the Arctic, how to move a U.S. fleet around the top of the planet, how to help clean up an oil spill. Gamers concluded the Navy needs to prepare and needs more resources.

-- The Northwest Passage is the long-dreamed-of, formerly iced-over sea route between Europe and Asia. This route around the top of Canada and Alaska has killed hundreds of sailors and explorers for centuries, locking their ships in ice, starving them, freezing them, driving them insane and causing survivors to eat each other.

Yet in summers, that passage is now so clear that tourist ships routinely sail through it. Even private yachts make the trip. It is expected that commercial shipping will follow. That's because a single Chinese container ship sailing the Northwest Passage between Shanghai and New York instead of using the Panama Canal would save an estimated $2 million each way on gas and tolls.

In short, the region is opening.

For the past three years, I've spent much time in northern Alaska researching for my book, "The Eskimo and the Oil Man." It's about the grand challenges facing the world there, as seen through the eyes of an Inupiat Eskimo leader who is a grandfather and whale hunter, and the Shell executive sent to drill for oil off Alaska's North Slope.

I sailed on the only U.S. icebreaker for six weeks, sat in on meetings at the Senate over the Arctic, attended a naval war game and met regularly with other oil executives and Inupiat leaders, whale hunters and families on the North Slope. That 4,000-year-old culture sits at the border between wise development and environmental anarchy, and the people of America's polar county will soon watch with hope and fear as the oil ships move north.

Their concerns are not just local ones but should engage every American. If you care about the environment, if you care about gas prices, if you care about where our soldiers and navy may serve next, if you want the U.S. to remain strong and dominant in the world, look to the north this summer.

Look to the Arctic. That's where much of our common future is about to play out.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Reiss.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT