Deputy Assistant Secretary Balton (May 8): “The nations and people of the Arctic are gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska this week to bring to fruition the two-year chairmanship of the U.S. of the Arctic Council and to … watch the passing of the baton from the United States to Finland, who takes over the chair of the Arctic Council this week.”

MS NAUERT: All right, thank you so much. Well, good afternoon, every one, and thank you for joining us for the call today. We’re previewing this week’s Arctic Council ministerial. Today we are joined by the phone from Alaska by Deputy Assistant Secretary David Balton of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. David, thank you.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the call will be embargoed until the conclusion of this call. And with that, I’ll turn it over to our speaker, the Deputy Assistant Secretary Balton. Thank you.

MR BALTON: Thanks very much, Heather, and hello to all of you. So, the nations and people of the Arctic are gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska this week to bring to fruition the two-year chairmanship of the U.S. of the Arctic Council and to pass – watch the passing of the baton from the United States to Finland, who takes over the chair of the Arctic Council this week.

What I thought I’d do at the outset here is just provide a little background of what the Arctic Council is, what the U.S. chairmanship tried to accomplish, and talk a little bit about what will actually happen here in Fairbanks this week, and then I’m happy to answer questions on any of this from any of you.

So the Arctic Council is 20 years old. The eight nations of the Arctic created it through a – out of a declaration. It mostly focuses on sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic region. Every two years a different state of the Arctic takes over as chair. The United States assumed the chairmanship from Canada about two years ago at a meeting in Iqaluit in Nunavut, Canada.

We laid out at that time three principal areas of focus we hoped the Arctic Council would follow over the course of these two years that have come – that are coming to closure now. First, we were trying to improve the economic and living conditions of the people who actually reside in the Arctic, and I can talk about some of the projects that relate to that.

The second topic dealt with Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship. As I think many of you know, the Arctic Ocean is opening up in a very real sense, so there are a lot of issues dealing with the increased human activity in the Arctic Ocean that we follow. And thirdly, we were dealing with adapting to climate change in the Arctic, strengthening our resilience and adaptation of Arctic communities in particular.

Some of the main things that you will hear about being brought to fruition this week: Now, one is a – the third binding agreement that the eight Arctic nations will sign. This one is on enhancing scientific cooperation in the Arctic. This was a negotiation that took place under the auspices of the Arctic Council, actually, over the course of several years. The negotiations themselves were co-led by Russia and the United States, and they have produced a binding agreement that we anticipate the Arctic ministers will sign on Thursday.

One other thing that has been completed already: For the first time ever, there is an assessment of the telecommunications infrastructure in the Arctic. Any of you who have spent time in the Arctic will know that there certainly are gaps and limitations in telecommunications here in the Arctic. Here, we spent two years with taking a hard look at that, with the idea that those gaps are to be filled over the next few years. Finland will take up this issue during its chairmanship, working with the private sector, trying to improve telecommunications delivery in the Arctic.

With the increase in Arctic shipping, we now have launched a new Arctic Shipping Traffic Database. The idea is to have a much better understanding of – in real time of ships that are coming into and going out of and passing through the Arctic region. This will help in the management of Arctic shipping going into the future.

And one other thing I would mention: In the past years, two other agreements that have been signed previously have been implemented rather successfully over the last two years. One relates to improving search-and-rescue in the arctic region, and the second relates to preparing and responding to potential oil pollution incidents in the Arctic. Over the last two years, there were joint exercises among the Arctic states on both of those, and I think we made a lot of progress in getting ready for things that might happen in the future.

Obviously, there are a couple of dozen other individual initiatives that are coming to fruition this week. If you are interested in knowing about more of them and about them in more detail, the Arctic Council website is a good resource for you.

Let me say a word or two now about what actually will happen here in Fairbanks this week. The ministerial meeting itself will take place on Thursday morning. It will be livestreamed and Secretary of State Tillerson will chair the meeting. It will include a brief summary of the accomplishments of the Arctic Council, including some of the things I just mentioned now.

Each of the states, the governments of the Arctic, will also have statements, and so too will the representative of six organizations who represent the indigenous people for the Arctic and who participate in their own name and right in the Arctic Council. They will all be able to give statements as well. Finland will have a moment to lay out its plans for the next two years of the Arctic Council too, and there will be a passing of the gavel – literally and figuratively – from the United States to Finland to conclude the meeting.

One other document that will be signed in the course of the time here is what we will call the Fairbanks Declaration. Every two years when the Arctic Council meets at the ministerial level, it has developed and the ministers sign such declarations, the main purpose of which is to summarize in a little more detail the work that has been completed and to look ahead also in a little more detail at the two years of work to come.

The – there are quite a few other events taking place over the course of the week. A group called the Alaska Arctic Council Host Committee has organized a lot of these events. Some of them will take place up at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, others at different places around town. There is a summit to look at broadband issues in the Arctic, for example. There is an International Arctic Assembly Day, when lots of speakers will offer views about pending Arctic issues, and quite a few other events as well.

So that is some sense of what is happening here in the – in Fairbanks. We do anticipate all eight foreign ministers of the Arctic here. And now I am happy to turn over the floor back to Heather or others who have – can bring the questions forward.