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Background Briefing on Arctic Council Preview

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
April 24, 2015

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much and thanks to all of you for joining us for this call. This call will be on background attributable to a senior State Department official, and we'll be previewing the Secretary's travel to the Arctic Council ministers meeting. And just for your understanding, our speaker today is [senior State Department official], but hereafter will be referred to as a senior State Department official.

And with that, I'll turn it over to [senior State Department official] and let [senior State Department official] give us an outline of the program and about the priorities for the Arctic Council. So with that, please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator]. And good afternoon to everybody. This is [Senior State Department Official], and I'm delighted to be able to speak today about our travel to Iqaluit for the Arctic Council Ministerial.

[Identifying information withheld] I was gratified to find that there actually had been years of work to prepare us for the Arctic Council. There's something called the Arctic Policy Group, or the APG, which is an interagency group. And they had developed an extensive work list of items that could be considered for our chairmanship program. By the time I got here, we were more in the mode of just coming up and sort of categorizing them and setting some priorities, but then most importantly, getting out and starting to listen to all the various constituent groups in order to get feedback on our proposed program.

Upon arriving at the State Department and having reviewed the program, we immediately went to Alaska, which is most important, of course, to the United States, because Alaska makes us an Arctic nation. And we spent a week up there listening to all our constituent groups, whether it's native Alaskans or Alaskan natives – and there's a difference between the two – elected officials, environmental groups, industry groups, and everything in between. We brought that feedback back to the State Department, made an initial briefing to Secretary Kerry, who blessed the general program, and then we started refining it, once again going back to Alaska to do a second round of listening, talks, and then embarking on going to our fellow Arctic nations to talk to them.

Last October I did my first public speaking event internationally at the Arctic Circle event in Reykjavik, where we started getting feedback from the other countries. And then this past January I visited Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia to brief our program both to our embassies – our U.S. embassies in those countries – and also to meet with the foreign ministries, the defense ministries, parliamentary groups, NGOs, and others to get their feedback on the program.

We wrapped up our international visits about three weeks ago by traveling up to Ottawa to discuss the program and the transition between Canada and the United States for the chairmanship, and we are – I'm delighted to tell you that we are now in the process of getting ready to implement our program. Senior Arctic officials met in Ottawa the week following my visit up there. And all the items on our program have been approved for adoption during our chairmanship.

The theme of our chairmanship is "One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities." And we've broken down our projects into three separate areas, the first being Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship; the second being improving economic and living conditions; and the third, adapting to climate change. And we have about five or six individual projects underneath each and every one of those headings.

The feedback that we've gotten as we've traveled around to the various countries and to our own constituents in Alaska has been fairly consistent. The first thing, which I'm very pleased with, is that it's a balanced program. We sought balance because we want to bring everybody in. We don't want to isolate any groups, and we have, as I said, spoken everything from environmental groups to industry, NGOs, and everything in between. And every group we've spoken to has seen something in the program for them. So we're happy with the balance.

The second comment that we get most often is, "Wow, that's a really ambitious program." I like that. The only person that I do not get that comment from is John Kerry. He always asks, "Is there more we can be doing?" And so I think we – besides finding a balanced program, we have a – found the sweet spot in terms of whether it's ambitious, are we doing enough. And I think Secretary Kerry has been convinced that we do have a good, ambitious program that has something in it for everybody.

The third comment that comes up most often is, "What about Russia?" And I think by virtue of me visiting Russia, I have a good feel for those people who are working on Arctic issues. And the fact of the matter is that the Arctic Council is an international forum and that all eight countries must be joined in consensus to move any issue forward. So obviously, we are reluctant to isolate any one of those countries, because we need their cooperation in order to achieve the goals of our chairmanship.

Third – rather, the fourth issue that comes up most often is everybody's excited about the United States chairmanship. Now, I take that with a grain of salt because [identifying information withheld] everybody's really excited right up until the moment when you say "I relieve you" and you now have the responsibility and anything that goes wrong gets blamed on the new guy.

So we are excited and we are gratified that the other countries are excited to see us take leadership. I think part of that has to do with the balanced and ambitious program, but the proof is in the way ahead and as we conduct our activities over the next two years.

Probably the last comment that I get most often, also associated with U.S. leadership, is the countries question our commitment: "Is the United States really committed to the Arctic?" And that goes back to one of our major goals for our chairmanship for the Arctic Council, is we want to raise the awareness of the Arctic, primarily for U.S. citizens. There's a – it's my own observation that there's a big disconnect between the Lower 48, as we refer to them, and Alaska. Part of that's due to the remoteness. As we sit here in Washington, D.C., we're 3,500 miles away from Barrow, Alaska, and there's a lot of Canada in between us and Alaska.

So we want to close that disconnect. We want people within the lower 48 to understand that we are an Arctic nation. There is a new ocean that's opening up there that is going to bring development and other issues. We want them to understand that the climate is changing drastically in the Arctic and what happens in the Arctic does not remain there. I think people, whether you're on the West Coast or the East Coast of the United States, are seeing the effects of climate change. And that's why climate change is going to play a very significant factor in the U.S. chairmanship.

A lot of people have looked at that and said that we're dominated by climate change. We – I admit we have a large portion of it, but I will go back to the original statement, which is it's a balanced program. We're looking at the human activity that's going to be occurring in the Arctic Ocean and making preparations for that. We want to improve the economic and living conditions of the people who are in the North, and we will work on climate change adaptation as well.

So with that, I'm looking forward to seeing all of you tomorrow on the plane going up to Iqaluit. The basic outline for the day is once we arrive in Iqaluit, the Secretary will immediately proceed to the Arctic Council ministerial meeting, and that will take place for about two hours. I'm sorry, there will be a – there's a ministers meeting in the morning that takes place for about an hour and a half, and that's a closed session where the ministers will get together and discuss some issues that are confronting the council in preparation for the ministerial meeting later in the day.

After that initial meeting between the ministers, they'll depart for lunch with the permanent participants. Besides the eight countries that make up the Arctic Council, the six permanent participants representing the indigenous peoples of the North are very important to how we conduct our business in the Arctic Council, and the ministers will be meeting with the permanent participants during lunchtime.

After lunch is when the ministerial meeting – the big meeting with – where all the official business will occur. That's about a two-hour meeting where the Canadians will present their achievements for their chairmanship during the last two years. Each one of the ministers from the other countries will be able to make statements, and then the gavel will be passed for the chairmanship between Minister Aglukkaq and Secretary Kerry. And then Secretary Kerry will have a statement to make which will outline the U.S. program.

After that, there'll be meetings with the permanent participants with Secretary Kerry. There'll be a press conference, a press availability with the ministers and Secretary Kerry. And then we'll be meeting with the Arctic Economic Council, the AEC, which is probably the flagship project of the Canadian chairmanship. We will be carrying that on during our chairmanship, and Secretary Kerry and the other ministers will be meeting with them to have them brief up on what they've been doing and also to give us some recommendations for the way forward.

After that, the Secretary has a couple of bilateral meetings that he'll do, and then we'll leave about 8 p.m. tomorrow to start heading back to Washington via Boston.

With that, that's the extent of my opening comments, and I'd like to open it up to all of you for questions.

MODERATOR: Okay. And Operator, if you could remind participants at this stage how they can get in the queue for a question, that would be helpful.

OPERATOR: Okay. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You'll hear a tone indicating you've been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you're using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. And once again, if you have a question, please press *1 at this time. One moment, please, for the first question.

We'll go to the line of Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. Three things: One, how much, if at all, is the Secretary's visit aimed to try to help pave the way to an agreement in Paris at the end of the year on climate change? Second, can you give us two or three specifics on what exactly you hope to achieve during the U.S. chairmanship on the major themes that you described: addressing the impact of climate change, improving the well-being of people in the region, and so on. So the two or three granular examples of what you want to get done.

And then lastly, it's my understanding that Foreign Minister Lavrov will not be attending. Who will be attending for the Russian Government, and do you ascribe – or are you troubled that it won't be the foreign minister of Russia, and that therefore it'll be handled at a lower level, even if it's another government minister?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Very good questions. First and foremost, COP 21 and the lead-up? No. The Arctic Council and the Secretary's attendance tomorrow is not designed to help COP 21, but obviously the Arctic Council would not be getting as much attention as it is if it were not for climate change.

So I think what we hope to do during our chairmanship and I know that the Secretary will speak to in his remarks and probably during press conferences is the drastic change that's been occurring in the Arctic. It illustrates and gives credence and evidence to the fact that the climate is changing because it's changing in the Arctic at a much faster rate than it is any other place. So it's not fashioned as a lead-up, but what I would say is that clearly we'll use this opportunity with the Arctic Council to point out some of those changes that are occurring.

In terms of granularity, in the three categories that we have – Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship – the first one – we want the Arctic Council to start leaning forward. Two of the major achievements of the Arctic Council so far has been the search and rescue agreement and the marine oil spill preparedness and response agreements. Agreements are great, but until you start exercising those agreements, working and cooperating together, you really don't know what you have in terms of resources, ability to work together; you need to get out there on the water and actually exercise together. And we're very proud to report that this fall we'll have a tabletop exercise with all eight countries participating for search and rescue, and then in the summer of '16 – 2016, we'll have an actual full-scale operational exercise for search and rescue.

The same for marine oil spill preparedness and response. We want to have exercises for marine casualty and learn from that and inventory the resources that are available so that we'll be better prepared in the future.

We'll also look at coming up with – connecting marine protected areas throughout the Arctic. We hope to come up with a regional seas program agreement that will help with scientific research to demonstrate some of the changes that are occurring. And we hope to come to an agreement on – or at least to a system of monitoring ocean acidification. Acidification is occurring in the Arctic faster than any other location as well, and we can learn things from that that will help us around the world.

Under improving economic and living conditions, telecommunications is a huge shortcoming for the people of the Arctic. We are going to have an experts group that will get together in the fall and start inventorying the capabilities of all eight countries and see if there's a way we can gain synergies and come up with proposals to improve the telecommunications network of the North. We'll be looking at renewable energy projects, small-grid power systems that can be employed in the Arctic that will help our people who live in the North. And plus, in many locations in the North, the natives don't even have good fresh water and sewer systems that are reliable, and we'll be looking for ways to improve that. And there's a high incidence of suicide for the people of the North, and we're going to continue studies up there that'll help us – help enable us to get better assistance for them.

Under adapting to climate change, we're very proud of the progress made on the black carbon and methane working group, and we will implement the specific recommendations during our tenure. And we'll be looking at a number of other projects that will help us to tie together the information that we're seeing with the changing climate up there that will help inform other decisions to be made going forward for larger projects around the world.

Oh, and I'm sorry, the last question you have. Secretary – or rather Minister Lavrov – no, we're not troubled by that. I'm taking at face value that he has conflicts, and that's fine. In my meetings with the Russians when I was in Moscow, we were given a heads-up that this might be the case. The person that will be attending is Minister Donskoy, who is, I would say, the equivalent of Minister Aglukkaq of Canada. She is the minister of environment and natural resources. Minister Donskoy is her equivalent, and he'll be attending to sit in for Minister Lavrov.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We're ready for the next question, Operator.

OPERATOR: Okay. We'll go to the line of Carol Morello with Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: I have a couple of what-about-Russia questions. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the impact of sanctions against Russia, how they're impacting the work of the Arctic Council. And also, in a situation where every decision by the Arctic Council has to be unanimous, are you at all concerned that at a time when State Department diplomats are publicly calling Russians liars and we have sanctions that are crippling the economy, that the Russians might attempt to stymie the ambitious agenda that the United States has?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I'm not personally aware of any State Department people calling Russians liars. I mean, I just don't – have not seen that. But the – what I do – what I have seen is I've seen the people that we're going to be working with on the Arctic Council. I've met with Artur Chilingarov, who is my counterpart in Russia, and I've also met with Vladimir Barbin, who is the senior Arctic official. I have to tell you that of all the countries I visited, Vladimir Barbin gave us the most sober, detailed, and comprehensive review of our program of any other country. It was obvious that he had studied it, he gave us constructive criticism, and his support. And that's all I've heard from the people that I've talked with in Russia, is they are supporting the United States chairmanship, and we need that to go forward.

We have faced crises in the past around the world with Russia, and we've always been able to maintain cordial and cooperative and professional relations as it relates to the Arctic, particularly within the Arctic Council. And we are intent on that continuing, and I don't see anything that would prevent us from doing that.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. We're ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Okay. That'll be from the line of Cami McCormick with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. This is sort of following on that question about the Russian military maneuvers in particular in the Arctic, and the recent Russian claim that they've annexed an additional 500,000 square miles of the Arctic. I'm just wondering about the relations between Russia and the other countries of the Arctic Council, specifically Norway and Canada, and how that's affecting the council's business and the mood of the council.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, a couple of questions in there, and they're good ones and legitimate. But what I will go back on is when Secretary Kerry appointed me to this position, I saw press reports from around the world that indicated that the United States now was embarked on a military buildup of the Arctic [identifying information withheld] and that could be – that couldn't be further from the truth.

I've watched, and believe me, I pay a lot of attention to this both from my previous experience as [identifying information withheld] and in this position. I get intelligence briefings regularly and I'm watching what the Russians are doing. Most of what I have seen in terms of their buildup, in terms of improving infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route, are things that I think the United States should be doing as well – building infrastructure, putting in search-and-rescue capabilities, improving communications capabilities in the North. So I'm not troubled by most of what I see – let me emphasize most of what I see.

Arctic maneuvers, military operations, I'm not – I have not seen anything that goes much above and beyond what we've seen in the past decade or so from the Russians. What has happened is, for instance, the Norwegians and the Russians have been conducting joint military exercises up until when the sanctions were invoked. Because of the sanctions, we're not allowed to have military-to-military contact and operations, so they've done it separately. When the Norwegians did their exercises, it got no notice. When the Russians did their exercises, it was portrayed as Russian aggression. I'm not sure that they've done anything more than they've done in the past, and they have a right to take necessary steps to preserve their sovereignty of the waters that they're responsible for.

In terms of annexing, I haven't seen anything that says they've annexed. What I do know is that they are reviewing their extended continental shelf claim, and that is another thing that I think has been overblown. It's been – in fact, it has been portrayed as a land grab by Canada, by Russia, by Denmark. What they are doing is they are proceeding in an orderly, lawful fashion under the Law of the Sea treaty, a treaty which I wish the United States would accede to, because it provides for that orderly process of staking out your claims and then going to a commission which validates it. And that's what they're doing, that's the process that is occurring now, and it's all being done peacefully.

MODERATOR: Okay, great. Thank you very much. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. That'll be from the line of Jo Biddle with AFP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you very much. I wonder if perhaps, other than the military buildup, if there was any concerns about some of the Russian exploration for gas and oil in the region, and whether you feel, under the two-year chairmanship of the United States, if you're going to be putting into plans into – you're going to have plans to try and ensure that such projects don't damage the pristine environment up there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. First and foremost, the exploration, for the most part, within Russian waters has come to a stop. The Russians have not had the technology, and the sanctions that were invoked because of their activities in Ukraine have prevented foreign companies from continuing their support of those operations. So that is a problem for Russia.

I would also add that the sanctions are very specific tools that are used because of the aggression in Ukraine. We've been very clear that we don't accept the activities in Ukraine and the sanctions have been applied because of those reasons. That should not prevent us from continuing to cooperate for environmental protection and peace and security within the Arctic region, and I believe that will continue.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much. Next question.

OPERATOR: All right. That'll be from the line of Brad Klapper with AP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you flesh out a little bit more the climate elements? I know we've talked about soot and methane and permafrost for years, but what are the actionable – the kind of concrete actions you would lead on as chair over the next two years?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, as I said, the first thing is the short-lived climate pollutants: methane and black carbon. Black carbon has a – probably has the largest impact. We'll be looking at reductions in gas flaring, which occurs around the world, but most importantly during oil exploration in the Arctic. And we have agreement that all countries will reduce the sources of black carbon. We're implementing the results of the study, and then we will call for reports from each one of the countries at intervals during the chairmanship.

One of the things that is very helpful or will be very helpful is coming up with pan-Arctic digital elevation map which will assist us in all the efforts that we do up there in terms of monitoring the changes in the environment. We have a number of projects under Arctic climate adaptation and resilience. Some of those go back to the projects that we have in terms of improving the economic and living conditions. And we also are looking at how we might weave together an early warning system, tying in monitoring systems that all eight countries are using, but what we need to do is to integrate those so that we get the entire picture of what's going on at the Arctic and – instead of looking at these things separately. We gain much more strength by working together with all the countries than we do embarking out on our own.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much. Operator, do we have any further questions?

OPERATOR: No, there are no further questions at this time.

MODERATOR: All right. Well, then let me thank all of the participants, and also thank our senior State Department official for [senior State Department official's] remarks today. And we look forward to the trip. Thanks very much, and we'll see you all later.

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