WASHINGTON — Melting Arctic sea ice presents a wealth of new economic opportunities for the United States, but the nation can't take advantage of them until it joins an international treaty that has languished in the Senate, a panel of military and energy experts told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.
At issue is the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, a 1982 pact that every other Arctic nation except the United States has ratified. The treaty has support from business leaders and lawmakers in both parties, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it overwhelmingly in 2007.
However, a small group of Senate Republicans, arguing that the treaty could compromise national security and sovereignty, has blocked its ratification.
"It ties our hands," Adm. Robert Papp, the commandant of the Coast Guard, told the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, the panel's chairman, renewed his push Wednesday for the treaty's ratification as part of an effort to improve Arctic infrastructure and policies to better position the United States to reap the benefits of economic growth as the region changes.
"We must address the broader policy implications of an ice-diminishing Arctic and make the needed investments to maintain leadership at the top of our globe," he said.
While other nations, such as Russia, are perfecting their claims to new coastal waters for shipping, fishing and energy exploration, the United States has no such edge as long as it's not part of the treaty, David Balton, the deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries, told the Senate panel.
"The rules built into the (treaty) are highly favorable on a number of grounds," Balton said, adding that "our status as a nonparty doesn't give us the stature or the standing."
Ratifying the treaty could give the U.S. exclusive rights to oil and natural gas exploration on 200 miles of extended continental shelf, Balton said. Otherwise, the United States risks losing out.
"Only as a party to the convention can we lock in these rights," he said. "It should not be a political or partisan issue."
President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush support U.S. ratification of the treaty. So does Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana.
However, some Senate Republicans have blocked the treaty and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky opposes it.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., was one of four votes against the treaty when the foreign relations panel approved it in 2007.
"It submits us to arbitration with countries that have consistently voted against us in the United Nations, and it would give other countries control about how we operate in our seas," he told Fox News at the time.
But Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that not ratifying the treaty harms U.S. interests. Non-Arctic countries, such as China, have shown an interest in the region's energy and shipping potential.
"I believe it's crucial for the United States to be party to this treaty and be a player in the process rather than an outsider hoping that our interests are going to be protected," she said last year. "Failure to ratify continues to keep the United States at a disadvantage internationally and outside the process, without a seat at the table."
Peter Slaiby, the vice president of Shell Alaska, told the Senate panel that generations of jobs are at stake. The federal government estimates that the state's offshore holds 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Those resources could generate hundreds of billions of dollars in royalties and further the U.S. goal of energy independence, Slaiby said.
"We believe that these assets can be safely produced, and we're ready to prove it," he said.
The longer the Senate waits to approve the treaty, the more it discourages companies from investing, said Scott Borgerson, a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Maritime Studies in Massachusetts.
"The uncertainty created by the absence of a comprehensive U.S. Arctic development strategy is an investment killer," he said. "It's a mistake to leave Alaska in the proverbial icebox."
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