America Needs an Arctic Strategy

Port of Murmansk, Russia, February 2011 (Dmitriy Chistoprudov)

Port of Murmansk, Russia, February 2011 (Dmitriy Chistoprudov)

Global shipping may be on the verge of a breakthrough — literally. Within mere years, polar routes could be sufficiently ice free to revolutionize world trade. The distance between Europe and Japan could be shortened by up to 40 percent for example which would provide tremendous savings in time and resources.

As the Arctic assumes newfound significance for the world economy, national governments are stepping in. The melting ice isn’t just an opportunity for shipping; there are huge oil and gas supplies waiting to be exploited up north. Countries like Canada, Norway and Russia are already in conflict over maritime borders in the region.

Under United Nations sea law, the eight Arctic states have jurisdiction over waters extending twelve nautical miles from their shore with their exclusive economic zones stretching up to two hundred miles into the Arctic Ocean. Most of these countries already have extended oil and natural gas industries.

Canada has accelerated its exploitation of tar sands in Alberta under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative leadership and he insists that “the north has never been more important” to his country.

Russia accounts for the bulk of Arctic land and has made its designs abundantly clear in recent years. In good Cold War fashion, it has resumed patrolling the region with bomber planes and warships while Moscow invested more than a billion dollars in the expansion of the port of Murmansk which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.

Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States all claim part of the polar region as well which is rapidly becoming accessible to shipping and mining activity due to global warming.

Last April, NATO staged a large-scale military exercise above the Arctic Circle in Norway. More than 8500 troops along with a thousand special forces from fourteen different nations participated, including soldiers from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Arctic tensions have been rising since Russian president Dmitri Medvedev said in March that his country is prepared to defend its claim on the region’s natural resources.

“We have seen attempts to limit Russia’s access to the exploration and development of the Arctic mineral resources,” said Medvedev at the time. “That’s absolutely inadmissible from the legal viewpoint and unfair given our nation’s geographical location and history.”

Russia most recently clashed with Canada over which country controls the Lomonosov Ridge, a mountain chain that runs underneath the Arctic. Russia and Norway on the other hand signed a treaty this year that ended a forty year long dispute over their maritime borders in the Barents Sea.

The Arctic is estimated to contain about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Together this represents 22 percent of all untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons. Over 80 percent of these resources lie offshore.

Nearly all of the countries bordering the Arctic recognize the potential — except for the United States. The nation’s coast guard deploys just three icebreakers with two antiquated and likely to be retired. It’s why the conservative Heritage Foundation urges private sector involvement to keep the polar routes navigable.

Washington could help by repealing a ninety year old protectionist measure which prohibits ships not built in America or owned by Americans from shipping goods between American ports. The 1920 Jones Act has arguably destroyed American shipping. Fact is that less than 1 percent of ships built worldwide are built in the United States, icebreakers included.

If the Arctic is the new frontier, the United States can’t afford to miss out on it. The volume and velocity of global trade will hugely increase if the polar ice starts smelting. Conflicts are likely to erupt over the ownership of natural resources and the delineation of maritime borders. Canada and Russia could be tomorrow’s great powers. If America is to be a relevant player in the region, it needs an Arctic strategy.