MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks very much for joining today’s call. We’re glad to have an opportunity to speak about the Secretary’s travel next week. We’re joined today by Ambassador Marcia Bernicat. She is the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Unfortunately, Ambassador Reeker was pulled away, but Ambassador Bernicat will be able to speak to the Secretary’s attendance and participation in the Arctic Council ministerial and then take your questions. Just a reminder, this call is on the record. It is, however, embargoed until the end of the call.
So with that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Bernicat. The floor is yours.
AMBASSADOR BERNICAT: Great. Thank you so much, Ned, and thank you, everyone, for joining us today.
Secretary Blinken will be in Iceland to participate in the 12th ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council from May 19th to 20th. Secretary Blinken will join the seven other Arctic states’ representatives and the six permanent participant organizations, which represent the indigenous people of the Arctic. During the meeting, the Secretary will advance the ongoing efforts to sustain the Arctic as a peaceful region. He’ll also address the growing climate crisis, including the role of the council in documenting ever-growing climate impacts in the Arctic and mobilizing action to enhance climate resilience and reduce emissions in the region.
This ministerial meeting will mark the conclusion of Iceland’s two-year Arctic Council chairmanship and Russia’s incoming chairmanship of the council for the next two years. It will also recognize the 25th anniversary of the Arctic Council’s creation.
I’d like to recognize Iceland’s excellent leadership and the important work done during their chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Their work has, indeed, advanced our shared priorities.
We view the Arctic Council as the premier forum for discussing matters of Arctic governance. The Arctic Council is made up of the eight Arctic states – the United States, Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Sweden – and the six permanent participants – the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council.
The Secretary’s participation in this Arctic Council ministerial reinforces the value that the United States places on strong international cooperation through this body. The Arctic Council has helped us keep the region peaceful while increasing environmental protection, promoting sustainable development, encouraging scientific research, and supporting the indigenous people who live throughout the region. The entire Arctic region benefits therefore from the cooperation the Arctic Council facilitates and has enjoyed for so many years.
So I’ll stop there and I’m happy to take any questions you may have. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Great. Thank you. Operator, if you would like to offer the instructions for those wishing to ask a question.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Once again, if you would like to ask a question today, you may press 1 and then 0 using your telephone keypad. We do ask that you wait for the operator to confirm that your line is open before asking your question.
MR PRICE: Great. Why don’t we start with the line of Humeyra Pamuk?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you very much for doing this. I just wanted to ask you about Russia in the context of Arctic. Bilateral ties between Washington and Moscow at the moment are quite sour, to say the least, but I’m just wondering if you think you can work with Russia when it comes to Artic-related topics, and by that I mean, for example, climate change, sustainable economic development of resources. This is also in light of the fact that they’re taking over the council as chair. Or do you feel that the threat that they’re posing in the Arctic – and this was, for example, something quite clearly expressed by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the 2019 meeting – the threat that they’re posing is too much of an obstacle for any cooperation between the two countries? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR BERNICAT: Thank you so much for that question. First of all, the Arctic Council is the premier forum for discussing and governing issues related to the Arctic, and I’m so pleased to be able to confirm that over the 25 year history of the council, the eight countries have come together over these common issues. While security is expressly not part of the charter, if you will, of the council, nevertheless we’ve been able to cooperate on a whole host of issues that are covered by the multilateral framework that is the Arctic Council. First of all, we expect that the U.S.-Russian cooperation on Arctic issues within the council will continue during Russia’s upcoming Arctic Council chairmanship.
And just to further say that, again, with the Biden-Harris administration’s renewed focus on particularly environment issues, there is, I think, a renewed effort and commitment on the part of countries including in the Arctic states to really work together to see how we can resolve those issues. I think that otherwise, again, we want to see that region governed by the rule of law, by transparency, by good governance in every sense of the word. And our Arctic partners have abided by that, so we want to continue to see that.
The emphasis on security that Secretary Pompeo gave to the region several years ago was quite frankly directly related to the issue of climate change and the fact that the region is literally physically opening up to more trade, more transit, more transportation. So that’s such a greater emphasis on the eight Arctic states to work through those issues whether they present a threat or an opportunity to ensure that resources can be developed but while respecting the environment and especially the culture and the needs of the indigenous people who live in the region.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi. Thank you. You just mentioned this push in the last administration of trade, transit, and transportation and whether that’s a threat or opportunity. I think a lot of people saw the Trump administration’s attitude towards Arctic as one of making money and global warming was good because it opened up all of these trade routes. I’m wondering how now with the Biden Administration what steps are you having to take to reverse any of that. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR BERNICAT: Well, again I think it primarily is a question of focus. The administration has taken a whole-of-government approach to protecting the environment, and every agency within the federal government has been asked to look at what programs we have that are ongoing or planned that have an impact on the environment and to re-evaluate where necessary to make sure that we are promoting sustainable development through those projects or those actions. And so that is also true for the Arctic.
This administration wants nations to act responsibly especially where economic development and investment take place, but we recognize that development and investment are an important part of making the – that region a viable place particularly, again, for its residents. So it’s not about reversing economic development. It’s about doing it and in a sustainable way and in a way that respects the environment and the interests and cultures of the people who live there.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Andrea Mitchell.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Sorry, I had to join late so I hope I’m not repeating. But I was hoping that, Phil, that you could outline your goals regarding the conversations with Minister Lavrov and whether you will be discussing the issue of the Russian based criminal operation that did the ransomware operations against Colonial pipeline and what you expect from the Russians?
AMBASSADOR BERNICAT: Ms. Mitchell, thank you so much for that question and for joining us. Unfortunately, my colleague, Phil Reeker, was called away and is not on the call today. I can tell you in general that the Secretary is looking forward to the bilateral meeting he’ll be having with his counterpart on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Reykjavik.
MR PRICE: Andrea, I would just add when it comes to the upcoming meeting with Minister Lavrov, you saw that the Secretary had a chance to speak with him earlier this week. It was during that discussion that they agreed to meet on the margins of the ministerial. You saw from what we said in the aftermath of that call that the Secretary, as he did during his first conversation with Minister Lavrov, reiterated President Biden’s resolve to, one, protect U.S. citizens, and also to act firmly in defense of U.S. interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us, that target us or our allies, and we’ll continue to do that.
At the same time, we’ve also consistently said that we want a relationship with Moscow that is both stable and predictable, and that is in part because we have some set of common interests, whether that’s in the realm of climate, strategic stability, Iran, North Korea. We want to be in a position to pursue those common interests and what’s in our national interest, including, where appropriate, by working with Moscow where we can. And so that’s in part what this meeting is going to be all about. It’s an effort to try to get this relationship on a more stable and predictable path, or at the very least to test the proposition as to whether that’s possible. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of the conversation, but I think you can expect it will reflect the totality of the bilateral relationship – the good, the bad, and the in between. And so we’ll have more to say on that next week I’m sure.
We’ll go to the line of Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Hey, there. Happy Friday. Hey, Ned, it’s too bad Phil couldn’t be on the call. But can you guys – can you take this question and maybe explain to us exactly, to everyone, what is going on with the embassy in Moscow in terms of staffing. I mean, you guys have gone back and forth – it’s like a pinball machine – about cutting off Consular services, and now another announcement just a few hours ago. So anyway, if you guys could provide an update on that situation, that would be great.
My question as it relates to the Arctic is: What happened to Jim DeHart? Is he still there? And if he’s not, or – sorry, if he is, why isn’t he on this call? And then more to the point of policy, in addition to what Tracy mentioned about Secretary Pompeo talking about how the loss of sea ice was as boon to international commerce, there were complaints at the last one in Rovaniemi in Finland, which I was there for, from indigenous peoples. Does this administration see a greater role than what the previous administration did for the indigenous populations in deciding what policy should be towards the Arctic? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BERNICAT: Thank you so much for those last two questions. I would say, starting with the last one, this administration not only envisions a greater role for indigenous groups, there have already been a series of consultation with groups not just from the Arctic, but from elsewhere in the United States on a range of issues. And in fact, the State Department has a newly established, or re-established I should say, working group to work with indigenous people so their interests are absolutely at the forefront of this administration’s concern. These groups need a lot in terms of development, whether it be communications, transportation, and again, a responsible development of the resources that they depend on and can depend on. And so the idea of going forward is to make sure that that development is done in such a way that it does not do harm to the overall environment or to their other interests.
Your question about the Arctic opening up, again, other than the obvious, the Arctic is also in some ways – this is probably not quite the right word, but an engine for the rest of the planet. And thanks to largely U.S.-funded research in the region, but also the work done by the Council, we’ve come to learn that the region is warming not at twice the rate, but three times the rate than the rest of the planet. And so it really is imperative that things like the development of resources do not add to black carbon, for example. We know that the overall melting is actually helping to accelerate the warming of the region. The less snow and ice you have to reflect radiation and sunlight, the warmer the ocean becomes.
So the opening of the ocean is not an unqualified – the opening up of the ocean, if you will, is not an unqualified good thing. It also represents a tremendous risk. And I should say that there are highly cost-effective strategies available to reduce black carbon, to reduce methane, which is also being released by the warming of the permafrost. And so this administration’s efforts are to address both developments, but to be able to do it in a sustainable way.
MR PRICE: And Matt, I don’t want to get too far afield from the topic at hand, but I’ll briefly say when it comes to our operations in Russia, that through July 16th, our embassy in Moscow will temporarily resume routine U.S. citizen services. That includes passport services, consular reports of birth abroad, limited notarial services. They’ll also provide some immigrant visa processing for priority cases, life-or-death emergencies, and cases where the applicant will soon no longer qualify due to age. And if that changes, they’ll keep American citizens, of course, updated on those services going forward.
When it comes to other locations in Russia, operations remain suspended at the consulate in Vladivostok, and the U.S. Consulate Yekatinburg is not currently providing visa or American citizen services.
So let’s go to the line of Will Mauldin.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. I wanted to ask – thanks so much for having this. I wanted to ask if you anticipated the U.S. and the other Arctic member states being able to come together for a declaration that included all the members this time around. I assume – I understand they didn’t last time this happened. And then also wanted to ask about China’s presence as an observer, as I understand it. Was curious if you think that China deserves or merits, based on geography or other factors, a seat at the table in setting the Arctic rules, and whether the U.S. wants Beijing to have that seat at the table. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BERNICAT: Will, thank you so much for that question. I am really, really pleased to be able to say that not only has the declaration received the approval of all eight foreign ministers and the Secretary, but as well, a strategic plan, which as you may recall was – the idea was first tabled during our chairmanship in 2017, one of the achievements of the Icelandic presidency has been to complete that strategic plan, which will outline a good part of the work that the council will do going forward. That has also received the approval of all eight nations. So this council will have both of those achievements to point to.
Regarding China, I mean, China is one of many countries that is represented among the observe – countries and nongovernmental organizations that are represented as observers to the council. And we call on China in general to play a responsible role in world affairs and to uphold international standards of transparency, rule of law, accountability, and to abide by its own legal obligations. And so we urge Beijing to adhere to all of those promises and obligations, especially of responsible environmental stewardship as it engages in the Arctic.
But in terms of the Arctic Council itself, only the eight members make decisions about the governance of the region, and they do so by consensus. The observers have the ability to participate in and contribute to all of the efforts that go into supporting the Arctic – research and development, the One Health program, and other things. But they do not play a role in the governance of the council or the region itself.
MR PRICE: We’ll take a final question or two. Let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams.
OPERATOR: Thank you. That line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much. Ned, can you give us a date for the Lavrov bilateral? What day when he’s there will that actually happen? And then just to push a little bit on the resources issue, with your focus on the effects of climate change and wanting to move away from activities that release harmful gasses into the environment, does that signify that you will shift away from a push for development of natural gas in the Arctic and push more for things like wind harvesting or other resources? Just trying to get a sense whether you would look to incentivize other forms of energy production there, as opposed to the Trump administration’s focus on fossil fuels? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BERNICAT: Thank you very much for that question. I have to say that we have set ourselves an exceedingly ambitious goal of net-zero emissions economywide by 2050, and that isn’t going to happen unless we employ as many innovative solutions as possible. And so I think, absolutely, this administration is looking to invest in and promote not only the development of, but then the actual projects that include alternative energy. I don’t think anything is off the table, but again, in order to meet those very ambitious goals, we’re – we and the rest of the world are obviously going to have to look to alternatives.
The good news is already, those technologies are producing a significant number of jobs, and the idea is that they will produce even more jobs in the future. Not only do we get tremendous climate benefits, but we also have the opportunity to establish ourselves as clear leaders in the development of those technologies going forward.
MR PRICE: And just on your question on timing, we said it will take place on the margins of the Arctic summit – Arctic Council ministerial, and we’ll have more details on that in the couple of days ahead.
Why don’t we conclude with Kylie Atwood, please?
OPERATOR: Thank you, and that line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you, guys, for doing this. Sorry, I missed the first few minutes. But I just had one question, too, on the Lavrov meeting. Will Secretary Blinken be discussing with Lavrov topics that will be on the agenda for a potential Putin-Biden meeting? Thanks.
MR PRICE: Thanks, Kylie. We have addressed this. I’ll just recap very briefly that, of course, they agreed to meet when they spoke earlier this week. The Secretary, as he did when he spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov the first time, outlined President Biden’s resolve to respond to and to not countenance Russia’s aggression against the United States or our allies. But we also have consistently said that we want to see a relationship with Moscow that is both stable and predictable, and open lines of communication are a necessary ingredient if we’re going to be able to get there. It’s precisely the reason why President Biden raised the proposition of a meeting with President Putin in Europe this summer.
So the point of this discussion is to discuss the totality of the relationship, to explore if there is the potential to cooperate when and where our interests do align. And, of course, climate, which is very germane to the Arctic Council meeting, is one of those areas. But we’ve spoken about strategic stability, Iran, North Korea, potentially other issues as well. So both this meeting and the potential meeting with President Biden later on, it’s all part and parcel of the same thing: to test and to try to see to it that we can achieve a relationship with Moscow that is more stable and more predictable. And that’s what will be the focus of the meeting next week in Iceland.
So with that, we’ll call it a day and thank everyone for their time, and we’ll have more details, of course, as the summit approaches. Thank you very much.