Editor’s Note: Leon Panetta was secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013. He is the co-founder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy and a longtime advocate for healthy oceans. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
President Trump signed an executive order reopening Arctic waters to oil and gas drilling
Leon Panetta: This executive order, coupled with other efforts to undermine the fight against climate change, pose a threat to both our national security and planet
With our nation entangled in conflicts across the globe and facing down threats – both foreign and domestic – it is essential that we identify and seize opportunities to make smart decisions to protect our national security. President Trump’s recent executive order reopening sensitive Arctic waters to oil and gas drilling will not only have an impact on sensitive resources, it will contribute to potential threats to our national security.
The loss of sea ice from warming temperatures is already raising serious national security issues for the United States. The Arctic ice cap shrinks to its smallest size in September of each year at the end of the melting season. The September monthly average trend for Arctic Ocean sea ice extent has been decreasing by approximately 13% every decade.
The Arctic has, therefore, become increasingly accessible for shipping and other commercial activities. Other countries, such as Russia and Norway, have expanded development in the region with an eye toward enhanced shipping routes and natural resource extraction. The opening of a Northwest Passage due to loss of sea ice plus increased and uncontrolled development by both adversaries and allies raise justifiable concerns about security and leadership in the Arctic.
During my tenure as secretary of defense, I was a strong proponent for ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty to strengthen the United States’ maritime position across the globe, especially in rapidly changing regions like the Arctic.
Becoming a party to the Law of the Sea secures many benefits for the United States, including a stable legal regime that supports freedom of navigation for the US military and commercial vessels, the enhancement of US economic interests along our coasts and abroad and the protection of the marine environment, while also providing a seat at the table for resolving international disputes.
Despite overwhelming bipartisan support for ratification, it failed to even get a vote in the Senate during the last push in 2012. The two-thirds majority needed to ratify the treaty came up short in the months leading up to the election.
In the absence of US leadership on this issue, Russia and other nations will continue to make claims to vital resources in the Arctic in violation of the terms of the treaty. But the US is in a difficult position to criticize other nations for violating the terms of the Law of the Sea Treaty when it has yet to ratify the treaty itself.
Of course, the effort to protect Arctic resources was further set back by President Trump’s executive order re-opening areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, and potentially even the Pacific, to oil and gas exploration.
Coupled with other efforts by the administration to undermine the fight against climate change – such as proposing major cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency budget – the US is charting a dangerous course, ignoring the immense national security threats that are exacerbated by a warming climate.
Indeed, there is a strong consensus among defense and intelligence leaders that the Arctic is critical to our national security. It then stands to reason we should not take steps that will exacerbate the threat to Arctic resources and global security by drilling in a strategic and environmentally sensitive part of the world. Melting ice, rising seas, droughts, famine and floods are already impacting large populations, creating refugee flows and undermining the stability of fragile nations.
These are threats that both the CIA and the Defense Department have identified as critical considerations when it comes to protecting our security. My successor, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, has spoken about these threats forcefully. Unfortunately, in other parts of the administration, the dots between cause and effect are not often being connected.
It is a fact that expanding oil and gas development in the Arctic would add further stress to the climate, not to mention damage to the area’s fragile species and ecosystems. It also would be an invitation to other nations to engage in the same kind of exploitation.
Beyond the safety challenges presented by drilling, the practicality of seeking to extract resources from the Arctic Ocean to meet our immediate or even future energy needs must be seriously evaluated and questioned. The Arctic is characterized by a lack of existing infrastructure and rough and unpredictable ice caps that make drilling extremely challenging. Even the oil companies themselves recognize the risks and believe there are safer and more stable areas for development that can maintain our nation’s energy security.
Interestingly, this week marked the annual meeting of the Arctic Council, an advisory organization that promotes cooperation among its eight member nations, including the United States. While the US handed its chairmanship to Finland this year, the council will continue to need to address a multitude of issues in the Arctic – including the executive order.
While our system of checks and balances is designed to serve as a limit to centralized power, balanced policy should not have to depend on confrontation with the courts. There is a broad recognition that the US has a responsibility to be a good steward of our oceanic resources.
Instead of waiting for the courts to resolve the legality of executive orders, it would be far better for this administration to take a thoughtful step back and advance a vision for our oceans and energy development that aligns with our climate and security goals.
America is strong, not just because of our military power, but because of our moral power to do what is right to protect both our security and our planet.