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Originally published September 27, 2012 at 4:43 PM | Page modified September 27, 2012 at 4:43 PM

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Project and protect U.S. interests in the Arctic

The United States needs to understand the challenges and opportunities in the Arctic, and adapt its policies and capabilities to the demands.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The ice is melting in the Arctic, the winters are nasty as ever, the Chinese are courting Greenland, and happy 70th anniversary Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Add in Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell’s adroit inclusion of language last Saturday into the Coast Guard reauthorization bill to prevent decommissioning the Seattle-based Polar Sea icebreaker.

All the elements are part of the emerging recognition that U.S. interests in the Arctic need representation and protection. New icebreakers for the Coast Guard are fundamental to that mission.

The argument is made in part by China’s aggressive activity in the mineral-rich Arctic. The country does not have any Arctic territory, but it is working hard in pursuit of trade and political alliances.

Oversight of the region is under the aegis of the Arctic Council, which consists of the eight Arctic States: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Six international organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples have permanent participant status.

The capacity of the U.S. to physically represent its interests in the Arctic, or Antarctic, depends on the ability to show up. The Coast Guard has only two heavy icebreakers, and the Navy has none.

The Polar Sea was almost scrapped, and the Polar Star is nearly finished with a four-year overhaul at Vigor Industrial shipyards in West Seattle.

Another icebreaker, the Healy, is the Coast Guard’s only operational icebreaker, and it is designed for scientific research. The Healy punched above its weight last winter when it delivered fuel to Nome, Alaska.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, joined with Cantwell and Alaska’s lawmakers in June to persuade the Coast Guard to stop demolition of the Polar Sea until the end of 2012. Senate action last Saturday would postpone that until it was replaced by a new heavy-duty icebreaker.

Larsen, ranking member of the House Transportation subcommittee on the Coast Guard, is working to get similar language in the House bill.

Last Friday, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island celebrated its 70th anniversary. As reported in the Whidbey News-Times, Commanding Officer Capt. Jay Johnston noted the base’s strategic role and advantages in 1942 have not changed.

Larsen, on a visit in May, said the air station’s continued presence on Whidbey Island was supported by the Obama administration’s pivot toward Asia, and the air station’s proximity to Alaska and the Arctic.

Providing the Coast Guard with a modern, capable fleet is a worthy investment of defense dollars. The U.S. cannot afford to fund the Pentagon at previous levels, but some spending is fundamental.

America does not need a zippy new delivery system for nuclear weapons, as has been proposed, but an icebreaker is basic — even at $800 million with a 10-year delivery date.

China, with no Arctic territory, has an enormous icebreaker. The New York Times reports Chinese diplomats and financial and industrial leaders are visiting Greenland and Iceland with lucrative mineral contracts and aid packages in hand.

Meanwhile, the U.S. cannot get the international Convention on the Law of the Sea ratified in the Senate despite the efforts of Republican and Democratic presidents.

The U.S. has territorial, economic and environmental interests at stake in the Arctic. Act on those challenges. Provide the Coast Guard with the tools to do its job.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com


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