WASHINGTON – The U.S. is racing to keep pace with increasing global activity in the Arctic frontier, but it is far from being in the lead.
Nations are hurrying to stake claims to the Arctic’s resources, which might be home to 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas. There are emerging fisheries and hidden minerals. Cruise liners are sailing the frigid waters in increasing numbers. Cargo traffic along the Northern Sea Route, one of two shortcuts across the top of the Earth in summer, is on the rise.
The U.S., which will take over the two-year rotating chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2015, has not ignored the region, but critics say it is lagging behind the other members: Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada and Denmark, which is connected to the area via the semiautonomous territory of Greenland.
“On par with the other Arctic nations, we are behind — behind in our thinking, behind in our vision,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said. “We lack basic infrastructure, basic funding commitments to be prepared for the level of activity expected in the Arctic.”
At a recent meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, Murkowski suggested he name a U.S. ambassador or envoy to the Arctic — someone who could coordinate work on the region that is being done by more than 20 federal agencies and take the lead on increasing U.S. activities there.
Murkowski said even non-Arctic nations are deeply engaged: “India and China are investing in icebreakers.” The U.S. has only three icebreakers, and they are aging.
The melting Arctic also is creating a new source of U.S. security concerns.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said that expanding Russia’s military presence in the Arctic is a top priority. Russia last year began rehabilitating a Soviet-era base at the New Siberian Islands and has pledged to restore a number of Arctic military air bases that fell into neglect after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin said he doesn’t envision a conflict between Russia and the United States, both of which have called for keeping the Arctic a peaceful zone.
The battle now is on the economic level as countries compete for oil, gas and other minerals, including rare earth metals that are used to make high-tech products such as cellphones.
China signed a free trade agreement with tiny Iceland last year, a signal that the Asian powerhouse is keenly interested in the Arctic’s resources. And Russia is hoping that the Northern Sea Route, where traffic jumped to 71 vessels last year from four in 2010, someday could be a transpolar route that could rival the Suez Canal.
In the U.S., the Obama administration is consulting with governmental, business, industry and environmental officials to develop a plan to implement the strategy for the Arctic that President Barack Obama unveiled seven months ago.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rolled out the Pentagon’s Arctic blueprint in November, joining the Coast Guard and other government agencies that have outlined their plans for the region. There are no cost or budget estimates yet, but the U.S. Navy is laying out what America needs to increase communications, harden ships and negotiate international agreements so nations will be able to track traffic in the Arctic and conduct search and rescue operations.
The U.S. needs helicopters, runways, port facilities and roads in the Arctic, said Heather Conley, an expert on the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. With few assets, the U.S. might be forced to borrow from the private sector.
“When Shell drilled two summers ago in the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea, they had 33 vessels, and the Coast Guard had one national security cutter,” Conley said. “We’re not prepared. It may be another 10 years.”
The funding battle often focuses on icebreakers. The Coast Guard has three: the medium-duty Healy, which is used mostly for scientific expeditions, and two heavy icebreakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star.
Both heavy icebreakers were built in the 1970s and are past their 30-year service lives. The Polar Star was recently given a $57 million overhaul. It was tested in the Arctic in 2012 and currently is deployed in Antarctica.
About $8 million has been allocated to study the possibility of building a new icebreaker, which would take nearly a decade and cost more than $1 billion.
“A half-century after racing the Russians to the moon, the U.S. is barely suiting up in the international race to secure interests in the Arctic. Russia, Canada and other nations are investing heavily,” Rep. Rick Larsen recently wrote in an opinion piece. “We are behind and falling farther back.”