WASHINGTON — As Barack Obama becomes the first sitting president to visit the Arctic next week, the U.S. is falling behind other nations in the critical region.
The U.S. is sitting on the sidelines while Russia claims a huge part of the Arctic, with its vast energy and mineral resources, and China builds icebreakers to get in on the race for influence in the north.
The U.S. hasn’t built a new heavy-class icebreaker in 40 years, and as oil drilling and vessel traffic increases off Alaska’s northern coast, the nation hasn’t developed a deepwater port within 900 miles.
There’s a lot at stake: About 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas are thought to be in the Arctic, with a trillion dollars’ worth of minerals. Sea lanes are opening as ice melts because of global warming and shipping is on the rise, bringing opportunities but also the need for ports and emergency-response vessels for rescues.
The Obama administration created an Arctic strategy and is working to put it in place, said Fran Ulmer, chairwoman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. But Arctic projects cost money, she said.
“As other countries in the Arctic move forward with their plans to be better prepared for what is coming in the Arctic — which is more human activity — hopefully Congress will step up and fund some of the necessary infrastructure,” Ulmer said.
Ulmer said she hopes Obama’s visit next week will “communicate to the rest of the United States how important the Arctic is.” Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Alaska talking about the impact of climate change, and Obama will visit the Arctic village of Kotzebue.
In the meantime, Russia is wasting no time making its moves in the Arctic. This month, Russia staked a claim to a more than 460,000 square miles of Arctic territory, including the North Pole.
“That is a concern for us,” said Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, citing the rise of nationalism in Russia.
Zukunft said in an interview that international cooperation — not a “land grab” — is what’s needed in the Arctic.
“As you start getting into these sovereign conquests it erodes the ability to work collaboratively on safety of life at sea, environmental protection, and the movement of fish stocks in the high north latitudes,” he said.
The area Russia claimed is estimated to hold billions of tons of oil and natural gas reserves, and an abundance of minerals and gems. Russia also asserted authority over the northern sea route from Europe to Asian markets, which it hopes will become a major shipping hub as the ice melts.
The 1982 United Nations onvention on the Law of the Sea allows nations to claim exclusive economic rights over areas of the undersea continental shelf extending from their shores. Russia is trying to prove to a U.N. scientific commission that its continental shelf extends far to the north.
Denmark also has submitted a claim based on its control over Greenland, and the commission cannot make a binding decision on boundary disputes between nations. But Russia would get a boost in international talks if its claim is upheld by the U.N. commission.
“It would give them the credibility of an international tribunal of scientists saying, ‘This is good science.’ And they would take that to the bargaining table,” said Betsy Baker, an Arctic law expert with the Vermont Law School.
The U.S. can’t submit its own Arctic territorial claim because it is the only Arctic nation that has not ratified the law of the sea treaty, which sets international standards for maritime nations. Ratification has been blocked by conservative Republicans in the Senate, who assert that the treaty would give too much authority to an international organization.