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January 2013 Issue

Increased Activity in the Arctic Calls for More U.S. Preparation, Leadership

By Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska)
Chairman, U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere,
Fisheries and the Coast Guard

The Arctic's polar ice cap shrank to its smallest size on record in 2012, attracting the attention of many, especially those in the maritime sector. It is not just the newly open water previously choked with ice that is capturing interest—the Beaufort and Chukchi seas hold what many estimate to be the largest unrecovered reserves of oil and natural gas in the world. This past summer, Royal Dutch Shell plc (The Hague, Netherlands) conducted preparatory activities, involving two drillships and a flotilla of some 20 support vessels, for exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. That level of activity has not been seen in the Arctic since the days of Yankee whalers in the 19th century.

In addition, the North and Northwest passages may cut shipping distances between Europe and Asia by 40 percent. Cargo ships sailing across Russia's Northern Sea Route have steadily increased, as have the number of tourists, both cruise-ship passengers and independent travelers.

Arctic Policies
The U.S. Coast Guard has stepped up operations north of the Bering Strait in response to increased activity in the Arctic. The Coast Guard's Arctic Shield 2012 consisted of outreach, operations and assessment of capabilities from February through October as Shell prepared to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The Coast Guard cutter Bertholf, the first of the Coast Guard's Legend-class national security cutters, served as the flagship in these operations. Arctic Shield is the vanguard of an annual U.S. presence as the Alaskan Arctic Ocean opens seasonally to navigation.

While the Coast Guard has risen to the Arctic challenge, progress on other fronts has been glacial. But even that is starting to thaw. The Obama administration has started a five-year funding plan for a new Polar-class heavy icebreaker to replace the aging icebreaker fleet, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funded a new ice-capable research vessel for the University of Alaska. The 261-foot Sikuliaq, named after the Inupiat word for first-year ice, was launched at a Marinette, Wisconsin, shipyard in October and will soon be gathering meteorological and geographic data on Alaska's Arctic.

Arctic nations recently signed a joint agreement to better coordinate search and rescue operations, and the Arctic Council, which is an intergovernmental forum for Arctic governments and peoples, is working toward a multilateral protocol for handling oil spill response and preparedness.

These are all positive steps, but much more needs to be done to prepare for the opening of the Arctic. The U.S. Arctic is sorely lacking in basic infrastructure like ports, docks, air-support facilities, broadband communication and vessel-tracking capabilities.

I've introduced legislation in the past two Congresses to address the need to boost infrastructure and technical capabilities, study port feasibility, increase U.S. international presence and invest in the basic science to understand the impacts of development on the Arctic ecosystem and on the subsistence-diet resources of Alaska Natives.

I also support ratification of two international treaties necessary to improve America's ability to respond to Arctic climate change. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was negotiated decades ago to settle disputes over offshore waters and resources. As of this writing, the U.S. is among a handful of nations that have not ratified the treaty, including Libya, North Korea and Iran. This denies our nation a seat at the table when decisions are made about the Arctic's continental shelf.

As for dealing with pollutants in the Arctic, I support ratification of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants treaty. Pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane and dioxins are carried to the Arctic by wind and water currents, and they accumulate in the ice and tissues of marine mammals and fish.

Progress has been frustratingly slow on these initiatives, but the demand on the Arctic is ever increasing.

U.S. Leadership in the Region
The bills above will be reintroduced in the 113th Congress. Support will be needed among other members who have been slow to warm to the idea that the United States is an Arctic nation.

But we are indeed one, and showing a strong American presence and exercising our leadership in the region is a national imperative with benefits for all 50 states, such as greater oil and gas resources.

As the polar ice recedes and attracts increasing attention around the globe, shippers, energy companies and others are again casting their gaze to the Arctic, looking North to the maritime future.

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