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With Jobs, Money on the Table, US Must Ratify Law of the Sea

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska)
Chair, Commerce Committee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard

Of all the work facing the U.S. Senate to ensure maritime policies promote strong, growing economies and jobs in our nation's ports, one priority looms large: It's time to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Though its ratification is important to the entire nation, nowhere is the need to ratify this treaty more apparent than in my home state of Alaska. The warming Arctic is bringing challenges to the shores of Alaska, eroding coastal villages and buckling permafrost roads and runways. At the same time, the diminished Arctic ice pack also means increased economic activity, and the centuries-old dream of the Northwest Passage is fast becoming a reality, cutting shipping distances between Europe and Asia by 40 percent. Traffic along Russia's Northern Sea Route is increasing every year, and the Bering Straits may soon have the same strategic importance as the Strait of Gibraltar.

The diminishing ice pack is also attracting oil and gas development. Shell Oil Co. will begin drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea this year, and other companies will soon follow. The energy potential is huge, with billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. With warming waters and diminished ice, tourism and fisheries development will also flow into the Arctic.

This means it is more imperative than ever to ratify the Law of the Sea. Adopted in 1982, the treaty provides a basic governance structure to resolve claims for high-seas resources. Most importantly, the treaty allows nations to claim the seabed—along with the petroleum and mineral resources contained therein—beyond the 200-mile limit if they demonstrate a natural extension of their continental shelf. Preliminary findings indicate this area above Alaska may be much larger than anyone ever thought. Some say the area is twice the size of California.

We are not the only ones with our eyes on the Arctic prize. As decisions are made, it is imperative that the U.S. has a strong voice. Russia is mobilizing to take full advantage of its Arctic resources and plans to submit its claims to the U.N. in 2012. Other Arctic nations are not far behind, and even China, with no Arctic border, is building icebreakers and mounting expeditions to the region. Until we ratify the Law of the Sea, we don't have a seat at the table.

This is important not just to Alaskans but all Americans. Ratifying the Law of the Sea and claiming our Arctic resources means jobs around the country: shipyard jobs in Louisiana and Mississippi, refining jobs in Washington and petroleum industry jobs in Texas. It means we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and move toward the national comprehensive energy policy we so desperately need, creating greater economic and national security.

Other important maritime issues face our nation, and as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans and Fisheries, I am working to ensure the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA have the personnel, ships, icebreakers and infrastructure they need to accomplish their missions, which are critical to our nation's commerce and security. We also need to rebuild the trust in our fisheries science and management around the country. I'm glad to see increased funding for NOAA to improve stock assessments, but that is only part of the solution. We have worked hard in Alaska to build trust in our science-based regional fishery management council process. It hasn't been easy, and we still have to make tough decisions every year. I hope that I can bring some of the hard-won lessons from the north Pacific back to D.C.

But first, let's ratify the Law of the Sea. Let's quit the club that includes Iran, Libya and North Korea, nations that also oppose ratification. I think the votes are there for ratification of a treaty, which was largely negotiated in the United States' best interest. It's no surprise that Law of the Sea ratification is backed by the U.S. military, industry and even environmental groups. Failure to act now with the fast-changing Arctic could leave billions of dollars and thousands of jobs on the table.

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