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Empire Editorial: Arctic issues are Alaska's issues

Posted: January 5, 2014 - 1:08am

In 1969, the Apollo 11 crew planted six U.S. flags in the surface of the moon, a gesture more symbolic than literal, as a reminder to anyone who followed that America, and not Russia and its competing space program, made it there first.

Thirty-seven years later Russia returned the favor, but instead of shooting for the stars its objective was much closer to Earth. Using a submarine, explorers planted a Russian flag 14,000 feet deep on the ocean floor, laying claim to the seabed and all the oil and gas beneath.

Though its not likely there will be competition over the moon any time soon, Arctic resources are another matter that needs attention now as more nations look to stake claims to Arctic waters and the mineral-rich resources held within. And Alaska should have a lead role in those talks since it’s our mineral rights that could be at stake.

Russia considers the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater mountain range that expands 1,100 miles underwater to the North Pole, part of its territory. Years before it planted a flag on the ocean flour, Russia in 2001 filed a territorial claim with the United Nations under its Law of the Sea treaty for that area. The claim was denied but Russia refused to give up and is still making the push. Denmark and Canada, however, believe the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of their continental shelves as well, and as such they should be granted mineral rights.

As for the United State’s involvement, it believes none of the countries have a legitimate claim. When it comes to Arctic land grabs, however, the U.S. isn’t part of the conversation in the way it should be. Of the 160-plus nations that have signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the U.S. isn’t among them. In fact, we’re also the only member of the Arctic Council who hasn’t signed the treaty.

The Law of the Sea allows coastal nations to claim areas up to 200 nautical miles from their shores, and in some cases more if a country can provide enough evidence to back its claim.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski for years has pushed for the U.S. to sign the treaty and take a seat at the table, but when the topic came up in late 2012 it was met with resistance by 34 Republican senators who pledged to vote against signing the treaty. Signing it, critics said, would sacrifice national sovereignty. What that says to the rest of the world, however, is that the U.S. is the only one who recognizes its Arctic claims.

“This is a treaty that I believe very strongly will contribute not only to our national security, but will allow us a level of certainty in accessing our resources in the north,” Murkowski told the Associated Press in 2012. “I don’t want us ... to abandon those opportunities, and we would be doing that if we fail to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty.”

As Arctic nations continue lobbying for coastal regions to develop, it’s time the U.S. does the same and stake claims in a way that will be acknowledged by world leaders. Otherwise any claim by the U.S. will be considered secondary to whatever the Law of the Sea Convention decides, and tension with our Arctic neighbors will surely follow.

That’s not to say our country should give up its sovereignty, or that we should pay taxes to the U.N. in order to develop coastal resources. That would constitute as taxation without representation — the U.S. would have no say in how the U.N. spends those tax dollars — and would contradict the foundation for which our country was built upon.

When Canada’s term as chair of the Arctic Council ends in 2015, the U.S. will take the reigns through 2017. Now is the time for the U.S. to cement itself as a leader in Arctic policy, and it will be up to Alaska’s elected leaders to ensure our state’s voice is heard and we aren’t left on the outside looking in when policies are made. No other state has as much to gain or lose as Alaska, nor will the impact be felt as deeply.

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