As Barack Obama becomes the first sitting president to visit the Arctic next week, the U.S. is falling behind other nations in the critical region.
The U.S. is sitting on the sidelines while Russia claims a huge swath of the Arctic, with its vast energy and mineral resources, and China builds icebreakers to get in on the race for influence in the north.
The U.S. hasn’t built a new heavy-class icebreaker in 40 years, and even as oil drilling and vessel traffic increases off Alaska’s northern coast, the nation hasn’t developed a deepwater port within 900 miles.
There’s a lot at stake: Some 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas are thought to be in the Arctic, along with a trillion dollars in minerals. Sea lanes are opening as ice melts because of global warming and shipping is on the rise, bringing opportunities but also the need for ports and emergency response vessels for rescues.
When we can’t get a replacement icebreaker built, when we haven’t been able to develop a deepwater port, when there are challenges with telecommunications and other things, people legitimately question our commitment.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp, the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic
The Obama administration created an Arctic strategy and is working to put it in place, said Fran Ulmer, chairwoman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. But Arctic projects cost money, she said.
“As other countries in the Arctic move forward with their plans to be better prepared for what is coming in the Arctic – which is more human activity – hopefully Congress will step up and fund some of the necessary infrastructure,” Ulmer said.
Ulmer said she hopes Obama’s visit next week will “communicate to the rest of the United States how important the Arctic is.” Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Alaska talking about the impact of climate change, and Obama will visit the Arctic village of Kotzebue.
The Arctic is Russian Mecca.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, in a tweet
In the meantime, Russia is wasting no time making its moves in the Arctic. Earlier this month, Russia staked a claim to a massive swath of Arctic territory, including the North Pole.
“That is a concern for us,” said Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, citing the rise of nationalism within Russia.
Zukunft said in an interview that international cooperation – not a “land grab” – is what’s needed in the Arctic.
“As you start getting into these sovereign conquests it erodes the ability to work collaboratively on safety of life at sea, environmental protection, and the movement of fish stocks in the high north latitudes,” he said.
Russia is claiming control over 460,000 square miles of Arctic territory and the rights to its energy and minerals.
The area is estimated to hold billions of tons of oil and natural gas reserves, as well as an abundance of minerals and gems. Russia is also asserting authority over the northern sea route from Europe to Asian markets, which it hopes will become a major shipping hub as the ice melts.
“The Arctic is incredibly important to Russia,” said Heather Conley, Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows nations to claim exclusive economic rights over areas of the undersea continental shelf extending from their shores. Russia is trying to prove to a U.N. scientific commission that its continental shelf extends far to the north.
Denmark also has submitted a claim based on its control over Greenland, and the commission cannot make a binding decision on boundary disputes between nations. But Russia would get a boost in international talks if its claim is upheld by the U.N. commission.
“It would give them the credibility of an international tribunal of scientists saying, ‘This is good science.’ And they would take that to the bargaining table,” said Betsy Baker, an Arctic law expert with the Vermont Law School.
The U.S. can’t submit its own Arctic territorial claim because it is the only Arctic nation that has not ratified the law of the sea treaty, which sets international standards for maritime nations. The ratification has been blocked by conservative Republicans in the Senate, who assert the treaty would give too much authority to an international organization.
We are returning to the Arctic and must possess all instruments of power for the protection of our national security interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, to Russian military officials, according to the Barents Observer news website
Russia, which is expanding its military presence in the Arctic, is also far ahead of the U.S. in building icebreakers and Arctic ports.
While sea ice is increasingly melting, the Arctic remains largely frozen, and icebreakers are needed for far north navigation.
“Russia has probably in excess of 26 icebreakers,” said U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Zukunft. “Our nation is down to one heavy icebreaker and one medium icebreaker.”
Russia also has a ring of ports in the Arctic. The closest deepwater port to the American Arctic is in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, which is some 900 miles from away from the Arctic Ocean.
“For Coast Guard cutters that patrol the northern Bering Sea or up into the Arctic, the nearest place they can refuel is Dutch Harbor,” said retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp, the U.S. State Department’s special representative for the Arctic. “The United States is rather limited in terms of its infrastructure.”
There is talk of expanding the port in Nome, closer to the Arctic seas. But there are money issues and disputes over how deep it can be. Papp told the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington last week that Arctic proposals for ports and $1 billion icebreakers are struggling.
“The federal budget is under a lot of pressure. Most of the things in the Arctic are new starts,” Papp said. “And new starts are having a tough time.”
Obama’s visit needs to draw the attention of America’s citizens to the overlooked Arctic, Papp said.
“The American people are very disconnected from our Arctic,” Papp said. “We are both physically and culturally disconnected from the U.S. Arctic, and we need to change that.”