Arctic holds both promise and challenges

Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009

Today, I will convene a U.S. Senate field hearing in Anchorage on an issue of great importance to Alaska, our nation and the world at large - the opportunities and challenges that we face as melting sea ice opens up the Arctic for energy and mineral production, shipping, tourism and other commercial activities.

In the Arctic, environmental and geopolitical changes are occurring at an unprecedented rate. While changes are happening rapidly, though, our nation's Arctic policy has been slow to catch up.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet with some sea ice models now predicting the Arctic Ocean could be ice free in summer within a few decades. In fact, commercial vessels are using the Northern Sea Route this year to travel between Asia and Europe - an activity that's only expected to grow as shippers take advantage of the Northwest Passage as a 5,000-mile shortcut between the two continents.

The impacts of this rapid warming are not all positive, however. They are also being felt by the local residents who are legitimately concerned about what an ice-diminished Arctic will mean for their way of life. Many of the Alaska Natives in the region live a subsistence lifestyle. They're dependent on the sea and ice, and fear not only the loss of summer sea ice and its effect on marine mammals, but also the possible negative impacts that increased economic activity in the area could have on their lives.

Until recently, the resources of the Arctic were considered too difficult and expensive to develop. But with increasing access and high energy and mineral prices, the Arctic's wealth - estimated to contain approximately 22 percent of the world's remaining oil and gas reserves - is now being intensely examined.

As one of only five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean, the United States must be prepared to deal with the growing level of activity in the region. We must take steps to protect our strategic economic and military interests in the Arctic, as well as provide proper protection for the environment.

Unfortunately, we currently lack the infrastructure and investment necessary to respond to these new challenges.

To correct this, I recently introduced the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Implementation Act of 2009 (S. 1514). The bill would implement the Arctic Council's recommendations for improving shipping safety in the region, including funding for navigational aides, vessel tracking, oil-spill response, search and rescue capabilities and ice-breaking escorts.

To better determine the most pressing needs in the Arctic, I'll be hosting a field hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security this week in Anchorage. The hearing is at 2:30 p.m. today at the University of Alaska Anchorage Consortium Library in the Lew Haines Memorial Room. The hearing is open to anyone who wants to attend.

Admiral Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, will attend the hearing and will focus on U.S. national and homeland security interests in the Arctic, as well as the Coast Guard's expanding role in the region. There will also be a number of notable Alaskans testifying on the impacts of a changing Arctic, including Gov. Sean Parnell; Dr. Lawson Brigham of the University of Alaska Fairbanks; David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance; Edward Itta, North Slope Borough mayor; and Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

This hearing will help us learn what we can do to approach our policy toward the Arctic strategically, proactively and comprehensively. We should work in a spirit of multilateral cooperation with the other Arctic nations - Russia, Norway, Denmark and Canada - but foremost protect our own national interests.

Our first step should be to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention, now before the Senate, would codify and maximize international recognition of U.S. rights to one of the largest and most resource-rich continental shelves in the world - extending at least 600 miles off Alaska's coast. Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia are parties to the convention and are already acting to protect and maximize their rights. We must do the same.

I have sought to prioritize funding to replace our aging Polar Class icebreakers both through legislation and the Homeland Security Appropriations bill. As the Arctic sees more marine activity and competition for resources among Arctic nations, the U.S. must have a strong presence in the region.

As we explore the Arctic's vast natural resources, we must strive to strike a proper balance between reasonable development and strong protection of the environment. We must not overlook the needs of Alaska's first people - the Inupiat, Athabaskan and Yupik who have thrived in the northern reaches of this land for millennia. Preserving the culture, languages and subsistence lifestyle of these Alaskans must be our priority.

The Arctic is unquestionably unique and the projections of an ice-diminished Arctic have profound implications for this region, its ecology, environment and people. How we address and adapt to these changes is truly the challenge and opportunity that lies ahead.

What: U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security field hearing on Arctic policy at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, August 20, at the University of Alaska Anchorage Consortium Library at 3211 Providence Drive, in the Lew Haines Memorial Room (room 307).

• Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee.

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