The ice in the North Pole has been receding for at least the last four decades, and that combined with technological innovation has slowly opened up new opportunities for developing the region’s untapped oil and gas reserves, taking advantage of new shipping routes, creating new national security initiatives, and etcetera. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Russia, and the United States all have territory up in the Arctic, but Russia especially has been on it, devoting considerable time and resources (like their wieldy fleet of icebreakers) to prepare to reap the full economic benefit of the region.

Alaskan lawmakers, especially Sens. Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R), have been hyper-critical of the Obama administration for years now for their blasé lack of mindfulness concerning the Arctic and the race for influence that’s happening up there. Whether it’s a mere gesture to try and throw a bone to Begich is his tough reelection race or because they’re actually realizing that there’s a huge opportunity cost in continuing to ignore the Arctic — or both — the Obama administration is finally creating a position for an envoy to the Arctic and fulfilling a request for which Begich has been pushing since 2008. Via The Hill:

The announcement, in a letter to Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), comes amid increasing concerns that other nations – notably Russia – are staking claims in the Arctic amid a regional race for oil, gas and minerals sparked by global climate change.

Kerry told Begich that “time is of the essence” as the U.S. prepares to preside over the eight-nation Arctic Council next year and that he would “shortly” name a “high level individual of substantial stature and expertise to serve as Special Representative for the Arctic Region.”

“For a long time now, I’ve shared the view that the Arctic region really is the last global frontier, and the United States needs to elevate our attention and effort to keep up with the opportunities and consequences presented by the Arctic’s rapid transformation,” Kerry wrote to Begich. …

“It’s not always easy explaining to Washington bureaucrats how things are different at home in Alaska, but today’s decision by Secretary of State John Kerry to finally create an Arctic Ambassador is an important step in the right direction,” Begich said in a statement. “The bottom line is that the changes we see in the Arctic warrant a higher level of involvement from the U.S. and this position will allow us to better exercise leadership and vision in Arctic policy moving forward.”

Murkowski, however, was wary of the real impact of the ostensible effort:

Murkowski, in a statement, said the White House’s efforts to seize on opportunities opening in the Arctic so far “have been a national embarrassment.”

While she said she welcomed the administration devoting more energy to an Arctic agenda, she questioned whether a special representative would be “on par” with an ambassador, which she said most of the eight Arctic nations have. Murkowski said she would seek clarity from Kerry on that point. …

She sent a letter to the president earlier this week expressing disappointment with the White House’s plan for the Arctic. …

“The United States has never been last in a race to the future, but absent any visionary leadership and meaningful resourcing, we will continue to take a back seat and fail to capitalize on all the Arctic has to offer,” Murkowski wrote.

The White House has been reluctant to take a more active role in the Arctic so far, but with any luck, this is a sign that they’re realizing the United States can’t afford to miss out on all the resource development likely to go down there over the coming years — especially since the greens will be most critical of how this jibes with their climate-change agenda.