Cold, Hard Facts: New Arctic Policy is a Paper Polar Bear

Published Jan 4, 2011 3:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Coast Guard struggles to implement the New Presidential Arctic Region Policy without the equipment to even operate in that region; Obama’s “change” promises little more.

Almost exactly one year ago, and in the immediate wake of ADM Thad Allen’s 2008 State-of-the-Coast-Guard address, I conducted a focused one-on-one two hour interview with the nation’s top Coast Guard executive. More than two primary themes came to light during that talk, but of the two that stick most in my mind, Allen’s very public declaration that he was “done doing more with less” is particularly memorable. The second theme involved his call to refresh the country’s policy statement for the Arctic region. As it turns out, both issues are very much related to one another. And, although one task has seemingly been completed, neither will be declared “mission accomplished” for a long time to come.

On January 9, 2009, the outgoing President signed the Nation’s new Arctic Region Policy, less than two weeks before departing the White House. Almost eight years after President Bush took office, 15 years after its last overhaul and fully one year after Allen literally begged the executive branch to do something about it, we now have an Arctic Policy. According to Allen himself, “This document, which replaces the Arctic section of PDD-26, establishes comprehensive national policies that recognize the changing environmental, economic, and geo-political conditions in the Arctic and re-affirms the United States’ broad and fundamental interests in the region.” What it doesn’t do is provide the means to get the job done.

Allen, in his new iCommandant blog vehicle, says that the new Presidential Directive (NSPD 66/HSPD 25) calls for many things. Among them, he asserts that “The Arctic region is primarily a maritime domain and the Coast Guard will continue to apply the following policies and authorities, including law enforcement:”

1. Freedom of Navigation
2. U.S. Policy on Protecting the Ocean and the Environment
3. National Security Policy
4. National Strategy for Maritime Policy

As for conducting Operations in the Arctic, Allen told MarEx last February that “I’ve had no direction from the top on this one. I am seeking it now. We have to start looking at environmental response, search and rescue, and patrolling in an area that didn’t have water. We’re going to be sending some units up there to test their capabilities at high latitudes next summer because there’s water there and we have responsibilities. If you understand at all what is going on in the world, then you understand that the Straits of Hormuz, Straits of Malacca, Gibraltar and the English Channel present unique challenges to shipping. If we’re talking potential passages in the Bering Straits, then we ought to be talking to Russia right now about traffic separation schemes and navigation systems.”

Allen went on to say, “The current policy statement for the Arctic is imbedded in a document formulated in 1994. It doesn’t take into account the more open waters up there, the modern technologies for oil and gas exploration, and the fact that we operate the world’s largest zinc mine north of the Arctic Circle. That also has to come out of there by boat. It is time for that document to be refreshed.” Finally, and as one of President George W. Bush's last directives before leaving office, a more precisely defined Coast Guard operating strategy in the Arctic is on the table.

February 2009, then, would seem to usher in a new era of change for the country, a wide range of new Presidential policy, and generally, a new focus on how we do business here in America. That is, except for the Coast Guard. President Obama’s much-ballyhooed stimulus package bestows riches on many sectors of the economy, although some have said that the potential outlay for the maritime sector pales in comparison. Indeed, the conferees provided $98,000,000 for the Coast Guard for Acquisition, Construction, and Improvements instead of $450,000,000 as proposed by the Senate. The final version of the stimulus package also says, “This funding cannot be used for pre-acquisition survey, design, or construction of a new polar icebreaker.” Swell.

Today, the Coast Guard has just two Polarclass icebreakers, only one of which is operational, and another newer icebreaker, the Healy, which is usually engaged in research missions. Recently, Todd Shipyard was awarded the contract to provide maintenance and repairs on the Coast Guard's two Polar-class icebreakers. Both vessels, homeported in Seattle and built in the late 1970s and are the only Coast Guard assets that can handle the heavy ice of both polar regions. It is not nearly enough.

The Coast Guard is now actively working on a report that will provide the Obama administration and congress the specifications of exactly what equipment the service needs to meet the expanding Arctic mission. But building new icebreakers could cost as much as $1 billion and that process could span as much as ten years. Still, even Canada last year announced its intention to build a new fleet of vessels to protect its interests in the region. And the U.S. priorities for facilitating safe, secure and reliable navigation, protecting maritime commerce and the environment are undeniable.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge (and melted from the Polar Cap) since February of 2008. Today, the world’s largest zinc mine is operated in U.S. waters, north of the Arctic Circle. Much further down south, the heavy tolls imposed by the Panama Canal and a miserable global economy are causing shippers (also egged on by falling bunker prices) to look at going around the horn to save money. It is only a matter of time before they start looking north, as well. When they do, the commercial, environmental and national implications of such a reality will finally become fully transparent. By then, it could be too late.

The new Presidential Directive (NSPD 66/HSPD 25) calls for a lot of things. One thing it does not specify is how to get that job done. Fair enough. It is the responsibility of the Coast Guard leadership to lay all of that out and, arguably, they are on their way to doing just that. But all the plans, directives and paper documents in the world will amount to nothing more than the loss of another hardwood forest in the face of inadequate resources.

The new president has promised change. And, his party purports itself to be the leader in environmental stewardship. That remains to be seen. Let’s hope those words amount to more than just lip service when it comes to protecting the Arctic from all dangers – including the international commerce that is sure to come. Short of that, the new Arctic Region Policy amounts to nothing more than a Paper Polar Bear. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Editor-in-Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached at [email protected] with questions or comments on any article in this e-newsletter.