In April, the United States will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council, but Washington’s Arctic policy discussion has been dominated by one debate: resource procurement (extraction) vs. environmental conservation. While an important dialogue to have, our country’s primary focus should be on infrastructure initiatives. Without plans or proposals to improve our actual Arctic capabilities, neither policy can be meaningfully implemented, nor can the U.S. legitimately assume a leadership position in the region—and the country will fail to realize the Arctic’s vast potential.
Arctic offshore areas are a main focus of growing activity. Beneath the waves and seafloor of the high north lie some of the largest untapped energy reserves on the planet. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of its undiscovered natural gas and 20% of its undiscovered natural gas liquids reside above the Arctic Circle, with most resting offshore. Arctic fisheries are also becoming more accessible and new areas for fishing are opening up. Meanwhile, Arctic sea-lanes (such as the Northern Sea Route above Russia and the Northwest Passage above Canada) hold the potential to reduce shipping distances and costs between North America, Europe and Asia considerably. And both paths involve transit through or near U.S. Arctic waters.
Such opportunities combined with the growing navigability of northern waters (some experts say that the entire region will be ice-free for periods of summer as early as 2020, and most agree that this will happen at least within the first half of the 21st century) are increasing Arctic endeavors and maritime traffic, and elevating the risk of accidents. The U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System recently completed its Ten-Year Projection Study of Maritime Activity in the U.S. Arctic and predicts that by 2025, there will be a 75-430% increase in the number of vessels operating around the Bering Strait, a 100-500% increase in transits through the Strait, and a 165-340% increase in vessels operating along Alaska’s North Slope, or northern coast. This substantial growth in Arctic activity necessitates similar advancements in infrastructure to ensure safety, security, law enforcement and environmental protection in the region.
Picture: U.S. Navy photo by Aerographer’s Mate 1st Class Gene Swope [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons