By Sen. Mark Begich
Failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty this past year denied an opportunity to promote strong, growing economies and jobs here in Alaska and across the nation. But the fight to reassert U.S. leadership in global maritime policy is not over yet.
While this treaty has important benefits for the entire nation, nowhere is the need to ratify the Law of the Sea more apparent than here in Alaska. The warming Arctic is bringing challenges across our expansive coast, undercutting coastal villages and buckling permafrost roads and runways. But the diminishing Arctic icepack – which shrank to a record low size last summer – also means increased economic activity.
The centuries old dream of the Northwest Passage is fast becoming a reality, cutting shipping distances between Europe and Asia by 40 percent. Traffic along Russia’s Northern Sea route is increasing every year. Someday the Bering Straits may have the same strategic importance as the Straits of Gibraltar.
The diminishing icepack is also attracting oil and gas development. Shell began exploratory work in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Seas last year and other companies will soon follow. The energy potential is huge with billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. With warming waters and diminished ice, tourism and fisheries will also flow into the Arctic.
This makes it more imperative than ever to ratify the Law of the Sea. Adopted in 1982, the treaty provides a basic governance structure to resolve claims for high seas resources. Most importantly, the Law of the Sea allows nations to claim the seabed – and its petroleum and mineral resources – beyond the 200-mile limit if they demonstrate a natural extension of their continental shelf. Preliminary findings indicate this area above Alaska may be much larger than anyone ever thought; some say twice the size as California.
We are not the only ones with our eyes on the Arctic prize and as decisions are made, it is imperative that the U.S. has a strong voice. Russia is mobilizing to take full advantage of its Arctic resources and plans to submit its claims to the UN soon. Other Arctic nations are not far behind and even China, with no Arctic border, is building icebreakers and mounting expeditions to the region. Until we ratify the Law of the Sea, we don’t have a seat at the table.
This is important not just to Alaskans but all Americans. Ratifying the Law of the Sea and claiming our Arctic resources means jobs around the country: shipyard jobs in Louisiana and Mississippi, refining jobs in Washington, petroleum industry jobs in Texas; jobs for roughnecks from around the country. It means we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and move towards the national comprehensive energy policy we so desperately need, creating greater economic and national security.
Other important maritime issues face our nation and as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans and Fisheries, and a newly appointed member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will work to ensure the Coast Guard and NOAA have the personnel, ships, icebreakers and infrastructure they need to accomplish their missions which are critical to our nation’s commerce and security.
The same economic and national security interests are why it remains critical to ratify the Law of the Sea. Regrettably, a small number of Republican Senators – enough to deny the two-thirds majority needed for ratification – blocked a vote on this important treaty last year. They even rejected a treaty on the rights of the disabled negotiated under George W. Bush and supported by every major veteran’s group across our nation.
But the demand for the Law of the Sea remains. This treaty was largely negotiated in the United States’ best interest. No surprise ratification is backed by our military, industry, and even environmental groups. Opponents include the likes of Iran, Libya and North Korea which also oppose ratification. Failure to act with the fast-changing Arctic could leave billions of dollars and thousands of jobs on the table.
As we enter a new year and a new Congress, I remain a strong supporter of the Law of the Sea and will work for its ultimate ratification.
Mark Begich is a U.S. Senator for the State of Alaska, and Chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
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