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Opinion

Go North, America – to the Arctic

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski writes that until the US makes the Arctic an issue of national importance, America’s future there will be severely limited while other countries move ahead. The US can take a crucial step by ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty.

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Russia has already used the Arctic route for supertanker travel to China. Experts say a tanker leaving Murmansk in Russia needs only 22 days to get to Shanghai, compared to the 42 days it would take via the Suez Canal. The route can also save nearly $1 million in fuel costs. Looked at from an environmental perspective, that is 18 fewer days of fuel consumption and emissions as a result of the Arctic shipping route.

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Less sea-ice also means greater access to natural resources that were previously covered by the polar cap. The Arctic contains an estimated 90 billion barrels and 1,700 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered oil and natural gas. Of that, 30 billion barrels of oil and 221 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are estimated to lie in the Alaska Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. High concentrations of critical minerals, such as rare earth elements, are also likely to be found.

Admittedly, weather conditions are harsh. But our neighbors in the North are already embracing the opportunities that come with diminished sea ice. Their shipping and resource exploration across the Arctic is growing every year. Meanwhile, the US is woefully behind on infrastructure development, including navigational aids, deep water ports, and search and rescue capabilities.

We have an inadequate number of polar ice breakers that can operate in the harsh Arctic environment – Russia has us beat 33-2, and soon China will have more ice breakers than we do. Even India is looking to construct icebreakers to serve its national interests.

Certainly, reduced sea-ice presents challenges. For example, coastal communities in my home state of Alaska are more exposed to winter storms without the protective sea-ice. The coast line has seen significant erosion as a result – in some cases forcing villages to take steps to relocate their entire communities. It is an issue that will need to be faced regardless of the level of activity in the Arctic, and mitigation steps need to be included in America’s overall efforts in the Arctic.

Fortunately, Washington is slowly awakening to the need to become more engaged in the Arctic. In 2015, the US will lead the Arctic Council. And the Obama administration just released its National Strategy for the Arctic Region – an Arctic policy. The strategy lays out US priorities for the Arctic, such as responsible resource development, national security concerns and greater Arctic understanding. It seeks to coordinate the federal government’s efforts with work underway in Alaska and with the international community.

I welcome that engagement, but the Arctic’s importance demands greater attention, including ratification of Law of the Sea treaty. The path to the Arctic is opening before us. It’s time to write the next chapter in America’s story as a pioneer, Arctic nation. 

Lisa Murkowksi is a Republican US senator from Alaska.

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