U.S. Talk on Arctic Must Be Matched With Investment

For too long, our country has fallen short in meeting its commitments as an Arctic nation. But the Arctic region has captured more attention in recent months, in part because of its drastically changing climate. This week, President Obama held a conference in Anchorage, Alaska, to discuss Arctic issues with the many countries involved in the region. This high-level meeting is a big step forward. We now need to match strong talk with action to fulfill our role as an Arctic nation.

To help our country and our colleagues understand the opportunities and challenges we face, Congressman Don Young and I formed the Congressional Arctic Working Group last year. Since then, we have been pushing our colleagues and the administration to pay more attention to the growing needs of this region.

The focus of the President's visit was primarily the need to address climate change -- a hugely important topic not just for the Arctic, but for the entire world. Climate change is one of the major challenges of our time, and the Arctic region is facing its impacts today. We need to take strong action to address it, and I support the President's Clean Power Plan as a critical component of reducing our country's greenhouse gas emissions.

However, there are issues beyond climate change that deserve attention in the Arctic. The U.S. Coast Guard has said it needs at least three each of heavy and medium duty icebreakers. But currently the U.S. only has one of each. Without this capacity, our country will be unable to fulfill the environmental protection, research, search and rescue, and interdiction operations the Coast Guard must perform in the Arctic. While President Obama's announcement that he plans to invest in a new icebreaker was a positive step, the administration has never put serious funding for a new icebreaker in its budget. That needs to change. In his next budget, the President should provide the funding to match his icebreaker plans. We need icebreaking assets for many reasons, including to show our Arctic neighbors that the U.S. takes these issues seriously.

Other countries are not waiting around for us to make the needed investments. Russia has 22 government-owned icebreakers and just started building another that will be the world's largest. China, which does not even have a direct link to the Arctic Ocean, is building its second icebreaker. Finland and Sweden have four icebreakers each. Even our bureaucracy falls short. While other countries have ambassadors who are specifically assigned to the Arctic Council, America does not. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner and I have introduced a bill to change that.

Even if we had better icebreaker capacity, we also need improved science and mapping to keep people and the environment in the Arctic safe. The recent breach of the MSV Fennica, a vessel Shell is using in its Arctic exploration, could likely have been avoided if the Arctic had the same charts that the rest of our country's maritime domain has. No one was hurt this time - but maritime traffic is going to continue traversing these difficult waters, and the next incident may be more serious. We need to invest in the mapping and science to allow safe human activity to occur in the Arctic.

The people who live in the Arctic, including indigenous communities, also need more resources for economic development, clean energy, and access to communications that many of us in the rest of the U.S take for granted. Most Arctic communities run on diesel gas, which is expensive and only worsens the climate change challenges of the region. Basic communications systems also are difficult at high latitudes, leaving Arctic communities cut off from economic development opportunities. Developing clean energy technology and communications links for people living in the Arctic is an opportunity for the U.S. to cooperate with our neighbors in the region.

The administration's Arctic conference spotlights the growing urgency our country faces if we are to act as good stewards of the unique waters and lands of our highest latitudes. But without sustained attention to the details of what the people and environment in the Arctic require, we will continue to fall short as an Arctic nation. We can do better, and I hope the President's visit to the high north marks the start of the higher level investment we need to make to be a stronger Arctic player.