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January 2014 Issue

Arctic Needs US Leadership

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

Readers of Sea Technology may recall my frustration in previous years about the lack of progress toward ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention and our nation's widening gap in icebreaker capability. We are still behind the curve on both fronts, but let us take stock in what we have accomplished in Arctic policy.

At the urging of Alaska's congressional delegation, the Barack Obama administration issued a national Arctic Strategy. This expansion of existing policy is still a work in progress but demonstrates the administration's interest in, and commitment to, the Arctic.

The Coast Guard issued its own strategy to ensure maritime governance in the Arctic, and Operation Arctic Shield was back again this past summer, focusing on the increasing vessel traffic through the Bering Strait.

The Coast Guard's icebreaker Polar Star is back in service, and the Alaska Region Research Vessel Sikuliaq was launched.

NOAA has developed an Arctic Nautical Charting Plan to update the region's woefully inadequate charts.

The Arctic Council has reached legally binding agreements on search and rescue, and oil spill prevention and response. The Council now has a permanent secretariat, and the U.S. is preparing to assume chairmanship in 2015.

Meanwhile, the ice pack continues to diminish and more and more shippers are taking advantage of that. Vessels transiting the Northern Sea Route now include LNG tankers and container ships, and you can book a cruise through Canada's Northwest Passage. The organizers of the Sochi Olympics even arranged for the carrying of the Olympic torch to the North Pole, aboard an icebreaker, of course.

Energy development is underway in the Arctic's open waters. Exploratory work began in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas last year, and I am confident it will resume next summer with new and better engineered technology.

Earlier this year, I told President Obama the Arctic presents our nation with both a historic opportunity and a challenge. The Arctic offers tremendous resources and benefits to our nation, but we have a responsibility to protect its unique and often extreme environment.

The Coast Guard will be a key player in the Arctic but we cannot expect them to expand their operations without additional resources. We need to keep the Coast Guard's fleet recapitalization efforts on track.

We need a forward operating base in the Arctic to support marine and aircraft operations.

We need strengthened communications and vessel tracking systems to monitor the increasing maritime shipping through the Bering Straits. The International Maritime Organization needs to finalize a robust polar code to protect the Arctic.

We need greater icebreaking capacity to assert a strong, national maritime presence in the Arctic at a time when Russia, China and now even India are building icebreakers.

Finally, any discussion of Arctic governance has to include the Law of the Sea. The treaty provides a basic governance structure and means to resolve claims over high-seas resources.

I was disappointed by the failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty last year, but this fight is not over. I remain a strong supporter of the Law of the Sea and will continue to work for its ratification.

People have dreamed about the promise of the Arctic for more than 500 years. We have explored the margins of the polar ice pack in ships, dogsleds and balloons. Changes over the past decade have made the Arctic more accessible than few could ever imagine, but serious challenges remain.

Our nation has a responsibility to assert leadership in the changing Arctic. It will take significant investment of time, intelligence and resources, but is necessary to assert the United States' role as an Arctic nation and fulfill that Arctic promise.

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