Alaskans hope to see the US asserting Arctic control

Leaders: Law of the Sea treaty, icebreakers, both needed to protect country's interests
Capt. David Rauwolf of the pilot vessel Survey Point pulls along the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea in Taku Inlet in November 2009 to transfer pilots for the completion of the icebreaker's trip to Juneau.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee on oceans will take a fresh look at the Law of the Sea Treaty early next year, said Sen. Mark Begich, chairman of the Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on the topic.


The treaty was negotiated and signed by the United States decades ago, but has yet to go into effect here because it hasn’t been ratified by the United States Senate.

“It’s irresponsible for us to not be a party to the Law of the Sea,” Begich told the Empire last week.

“This is an important treaty that has huge opportunities for us, from Alaska’s perspective,” he said.

At a forum sponsored by the Juneau World Affairs Council at the University of Alaska Southeast recently, political and business leaders said ratification of that treaty was one of a number of steps the United States needs to take to fully exploit its Arctic resources.

Adoption of the treaty will help clarify the country’s claim to undersea resources that are increasingly becoming available as climate change reduces ice cover.

Also needed is the ability to protect the nation’s Arctic coastline, which means more icebreaking capability than is now available, they said.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, told those in Juneau that under Law of the Sea, the United States will be able to assert a claim to an area the equivalent area of two Californias, half off of Alaska, he said.

“Without ratifying, we can’t even be at the table,” he said.

Then, after ratification gives the Unites States legal claim, the country needs the infrastructure to develop those claims and protect American interests, he said.

That includes ports and especially new icebreaking capability, so the United States can get to the resources it is seeking to win.

China has been building icebreakers, Treadwell said, but the United States has been reluctant to do so.

The need for new icebreakers in the Arctic was the subject of new Gov. Sean Parnell’s first testimony to the U.S. Congress, even before Treadwell joined his administration.

Parnell, along with the Coast Guard Commandant, argued that capability was needed for both developing our resources and ensuring our national security.

Treadwell said since the nation’s last remaining heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea, is soon to leave service, we will be left with only the Healy, a medium icebreaker, still in service.

It’s been difficult to persuade the Office of Management and Budget, which develops the federal budget, to include a billion dollars for an icebreaker, he said.

“OMB is not crazy about spending on some ships they say are only going to be used for science,” Treadwell said.

Begich and Treadwell said there has also been opposition to some aspects of the Law of the Sea Treaty. It was first negotiated under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and took effect internationally after ratification by the 60th country in 1994. Now, more than 160 countries have ratified it.

The United States has consistently balked at signing, Begich said, as have Iran, North Korea and Libya.

“Libya may now sign before we do at the rate we are going,” he said, following the outer of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power.

Treadwell said the U.S. was continuing to push for ratification, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifying before Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski the administration would keep up the effort.

Treadwell said he thinks negotiations can allay concerns of some that the treaty would cede U.S. sovereignty to the United Nations.

“I think there are just a few members who believe that somehow we give up sovereignty when we sign that treaty,” Begich said. “The fact is we are not going to give up our sovereignty.”

Treadwell told the Juneau forum the treaty, and the icebreakers would give the country legal claims and the ability to assert them.

“The U.S. must have an Arctic presence, or other nations will gain hegemony in the region,” he said. “The world is watching, we need to be there.”

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at


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