The time is now to act to protect US interests in the Artic

“Leadership for the Arctic” was the focus of a two-day conference at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT, April 12-13. The event—held on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic’s fatal allision with an iceberg in the north Atlantic— was co-sponsored by the Law of the Sea Institute of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law and made possible through the generous support of the Coast Guard Foundation.

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy, founded in 1876 aboard the schooner Dobbin, provides a rigorous four-year B.S. degree program encompassing 13 academic areas in the fields of engineering, science, applied mathematics, government and management.  Graduates of the Academy are commissioned ensigns in the U.S. Coast Guard.

In her welcoming remarks Rear Admiral Sandra Stosz, Superintendent of the Academy, explained why the Academy, whose mission is to broadly educate future “leaders of character,” convened this interdisciplinary academic conference to focus on leadership for the Arctic.

She also expressed her intent that the Academy’s new Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy will serve as widely recognized and respected forum and facilitator for multidisciplinary research, analysis and outreach on a broad cross-section of maritime policy and strategy issues, including those raised at the Leadership for the Arctic conference.

Keynote addresses by NOAA Administrator, Dr. Jane Lubchenco (the Academy’s 2012 Hedrick Fellow honoree), Deputy Commandant for Coast Guard Operations, Vice Admiral Brian Salerno, and Rear Admiral Tom Ostebo, Commander of the Coast Guard’s 17th District covering Alaska, together with a presentation by James Watson, Director of DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), vividly framed the opportunities and challenges the United States and other Arctic nations will face in the coming years and the measures underway to meet them.  Throughout the conference, a number of speakers and members of the audience highlighted the fact that, as the sole Arctic nation that has yet to ratify the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention—a treaty that has been consistently supported by Democratic and Republican presidential administrations since it was presented to the U.S. Senate for approval in 1994—the United States is at a serious disadvantage in exercising leadership in the Arctic or any other maritime region.

Presentations by the conference’s 30 speakers were organized into six panels covering Arctic history, science, safety, stewardship, laws and governance issues.  In addition, cadet-students from the Academy’s government and marine and environmental science programs showcased their research on ocean policy and Arctic science in poster presentations to the 150 or so attendees.

Several Arctic challenges were singled out for leadership attention.  The need for a far greater commitment to Arctic science and data exchanges among the Arctic states (particularly from Russia) was one area of concern.

Members of the audience added concerns over the urgent need for hydrographic surveys and charting and to address Arctic communications challenges and infrastructure needs.

While the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) was hailed as a major contribution to Arctic risk assessment and management, slow progress within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in developing a mandatory Polar Code for shipping was highlighted as an area that cries out for greater leadership.

Increasing traffic through the Bering Strait and already high volumes of traffic through Unimak Pass in the U.S. Aleutian Islands led some conferees to conclude that leadership should give serious consideration to implementing traffic lanes, separation schemes and perhaps even more active levels of vessel traffic service in the region.

Speakers also called upon leadership to strengthen the role of the eight-member Arctic Council and to elevate the level of national representation, while also preserving the unique and important role of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples on the Council.

The Council’s 2009 AMSA report, its recent success in brokering a maritime and aeronautical search and rescue agreement for the area and its ongoing work to develop a similar agreement on oil spill prevention and response, modeled after the IMO’s 1990 Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation Convention, have demonstrated the value of the Council as an effective governance framework for the region. At the same time, the need to enhance its global legitimacy by accommodating some level of participation by non-Arctic states and regional organizations like the European Union in the Council must be addressed.

Following the panel presentations, Admiral Bob Papp, Commandant of the Coast Guard delivered the final remarks. Admiral Papp noted that looming Arctic challenges had been a strategic priority for him upon assuming duties as the service’s 24th commandant in 2010.

However, the Deepwater Horizon disaster that same year intervened and largely dominated the Coast Guard agenda during much of his first year. He might have added that the unprecedented scale and intensity of the spill response also enhanced and deepened his service’s already longstanding partnership with NOAA, while leading to the eventual establishment of BSEE, one of the Coast Guard’s newest federal partners in providing for the nation’s maritime safety, security and stewardship.

For all three agencies, the Deepwater Horizon experience will almost certainly shape their approach to the Arctic. Indeed, BSEE’s regulations for offshore oil and gas operations in the Arctic, drafted with the Deepwater Horizon disaster clearly in mind, were described by some in the audience as the veritable “gold standard” in safety and environmental protection.

While acknowledging the daunting programmatic and budgetary challenges the Coast Guard will face in the coming years, Admiral Papp assured the audience that he was convinced the service was ready to meet those challenges, at least over the coming summer.

After saluting the vital role of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy—a medium icebreaker whose commanding officer, Captain Beverly Havlik, was in the audience—in resupplying Nome, Alaska with heating oil in January, he noted that the operation demonstrated the importance of assured, year-round surface access to ice-covered Arctic waters.  While for decades the nation has looked to the Coast Guard to provide that icebreaking capability, Admiral Papp adverted to an ongoing, “whole-of-government” approach that will examine the nation’s future icebreaker requirements and resourcing.

Admiral Papp echoed the views of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Fisheries, Ambassador David Balton, and other members of the law and governance panels in highlighting the need for the United States to accede to the Law of the Sea Convention.

Admiral Papp argued that doing so will provide further certainty to Arctic claims and provide the U.S. with additional credibility with its many Arctic partners.

Other speakers noted that chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which rotates every two years, will pass from Canada to the United States in 2015. Although this would normally provide the U.S. with an important opportunity to shape the Council’s agenda, speakers expressed concern that U.S. leadership on the Council will be weakened if the nation remains outside the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which now defines maritime rights and obligations among its 162 states-parties, including the other seven members of the Arctic Council.

The arguments in favor of U.S. accession to the Law of the Sea Convention have never been stronger.  That is nowhere more evident than in the resource-rich yet highly vulnerable Arctic waters.

When he issued National Security Presidential Directive 66 in early 2009, President George W. Bush declared that “the United States is an Arctic nation.” He went on to urge the Senate to “act favorably on U.S. accession to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea promptly, to protect and advance U.S. interests, including with respect to the Arctic.”

The time is ripe for senators from both sides of the aisle to take up that charge and act to protect and advance U.S. maritime interests.

Craig H. Allen Sr. is the Judson Falknor Professor of Law and of Marine Affairs at the University of Washington.  For the 2011-2012 academic year he is serving as the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Maritime Studies at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and a Visiting Professor at Yale Law School.