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White House Proposes To Expand Access To Arctic

The U.S. Coast Guard's heavy icebreaker Polar Star in an undated photograph
The U.S. Coast Guard's heavy icebreaker Polar Star in an undated photograph

The White House has proposed a faster timetable for buying a new heavy icebreaker as the Obama administration puts new focus on access to the U.S. Arctic and its resources.

President Barack Obama announced the accelerated timetable and plans for the purchase of new icebreakers on September 1 as he continued a three-day trip to Alaska.

Obama will have to convince Congress to pick up the tab for any new icebreakers, each of which come with a price tag of about $1 billion.

Obama’s trip, which began August 31, has largely focused on climate change and the effects it is having on Alaskans, in particular native groups.

But the issue of ensuring greater access to Arctic resources is gaining more urgency for some in Congress and elsewhere as Russia has aggressively moved to expand its military and maritime shipping operations throughout its Arctic territories.

Earlier this month, Moscow staked claim to a sizable swath of Arctic Sea territory, submitting data to the United Nations under an international treaty that allows polar nations to claim exclusive territorial access.

The United States is not a signatory to the treaty, called the Law of the Sea Convention.

Russia currently has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet: 40 operational and up to 12 more planned or under construction. Of that fleet, six are nuclear-powered.

The United States, by contrast, has three in all. Only two are fully functional and only one is for heavy-duty ice conditions.

The White House proposal would speed up acquisition of a replacement heavy icebreaker by 2020, rather than the previous goal of 2022, and begin planning for construction of additional icebreakers. It calls on Congress to fund the investments.

“The growth of human activity in the Arctic region will require highly engaged stewardship to maintain the open seas necessary for global commerce and scientific research, allow for search and rescue activities, and provide for regional peace and stability,” the White House said in a statement.

“Meeting these challenges requires the United States to develop and maintain capacity for year-round access to greater expanses within polar regions.”

The White House said Obama will announce an effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard to chart the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas, where the warming climate has caused Arctic ice to recede, opening them up for greater transport and exploration.

Also hampering Arctic access is the fact that there are no deep-water ports in Alaska north of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

The White House said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at the possibility of deepening the harbor at Nome, in order to receive larger ships that will likely be traversing the region in coming years.

Nome is closer to Russia than it is to Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage, located about 550 miles to the southeast.

With reporting by Reuters
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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