Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell isn't what you'd expect of a man rising in the GOP's ranks. He's a conservationist who loves John McPhee and uses New Yorker cartoons about climate change in presentations about Arctic issues -- and not mockingly. He's also a staunch supporter of oil and gas development and a former pipeline company executive. In other words, he's hard to box in -- much like his mentor, Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel, who was President Nixon's Interior secretary. Hickel famously said, "You can't just let nature run wild," but strengthened offshore drilling standards after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, and then doggedly enforced the new rules.

Treadwell, former chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, is one of the nation's leading experts in the global politics of the new Arctic. High Country News contributor Michael Burger recently spoke with him about Arctic issues, including Shell Oil's plans to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to make a final decision this month.

HIGH COUNTRY NEWS How does a guy from Connecticut -- educated at Yale and Harvard Business School -- wind up in Alaska?

MEAD TREADWELL I like to fish, I like to ski, I love mountains, and there is nothing here in Alaska that makes me feel distant from the world. The issues we're working on -- energy, environment, economic development -- all mean that we're very connected.

(In 1974) I happened to walk in to Wally Hickel's office (wanting) advice on how to find a job. (He hired me, and my) very first task was helping him write his position on fisheries and the Law of the Sea. I went back to Yale and took anything I could about oceans.

HCN What are the most pressing environmental issues facing Alaska?

TREADWELL One … is keeping the Alaska pipeline full. Before you say, "Wait, I asked you about the environment," let me just tell you that the income that comes from oil in the state pays for clean water, sanitation. A robust economy is very, very important for health and the environment.

The leading environmental issue is what do we do with an opening Arctic to make sure that we have marine safety? The commodities now being shipped through the Arctic Ocean and Bering Strait include crude oil, aviation fuel, gas condensate, liquefied natural gas, iron ore. And this is a commons where we don't have a way to insist on environmental protection in the same way that we would on shipping activity in internal U.S. waters. We don't have the capability to require itinerant vessels, for example, to be part of oil-spill response organizations.

HCN How are you managing the increased traffic?

TREADWELL We're working to make sure there are things like Coast Guard ice-breakers, to respond to incidents. We'd like to see an international agreement on pollution prevention and oil-spill response.

When I hear (Vladimir Putin) announce nine new icebreakers, then find myself in a congressional hearing where we're trying to scrape together the money for one, it makes you realize that America still doesn't understand it's an Arctic nation, and has no idea what's coming with Arctic shipping.

HCN Why should the U.S. start thinking of itself as an Arctic nation?

TREADWELL A recent U.S. Geological Survey study said 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil, and 23 percent of the world's undiscovered gas is going to come from this part of the world. Shipping (distances) between Europe and Asia … are 40 percent reduced by (Arctic shipping). The world's largest iron ore, nickel and lead zinc mines happen to be in the Arctic. We can no longer have the mindset that it's a frozen warehouse. It's very rapidly becoming a major part of the global economy.
We need to understand what's there to get, and what's there to protect. A year ago, at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, Greenland, I said, "As you look around this room, there are eight Arctic nations; six are either drilling or preparing to drill for oil in the Arctic (Ocean)." You're not going to "save" the Arctic by unilaterally pulling back.

HCN You were involved with oil spill response after the Exxon Valdez spill. You also support Shell's drilling plans. Is industry ready to handle the challenge of drilling in Arctic waters?

TREADWELL Before Exxon Valdez, if you even mentioned the words "oil spill" you were accused of negative thinking. Exxon Valdez forced us to recognize … that it's worth spending the money to prevent it. Also, now as part of oil-spill contingency planning, you'd get the fishermen who know the local waters, who can help … by providing vessels, and other people who'd be affected involved.

Shell has had to go through the gates to drill, from time limitations on their drilling because of ice, requirements on their equipment to be able to move off-station if ice is moving in, secondary blowout preventers, the capability to recover much larger amounts of oil than anyone would have ever expected. People said, "Let's invest what needs to be invested, so we're not eating our words later." I sincerely hope I'll never be eating my words later on this one.