The Arctic Race
– Michael Roh
The Arctic region bears strategic importance both as home to new transport routes and new exploration and production area. There are unending debates about the ecological dimension of these developments; however, what caught my eye in the recent news is that some countries are more proactive than another in their activities in the Arctic, and this is not often about availability of funds but a strategic choice.
President Obama was recently quoted as saying the U.S. will “accelerate the acquisition of new Coast Guard icebreakers … to develop and maintain capacity for year-round access to greater expanses within polar regions.”1 The U.S. currently has two functioning icebreakers, the Healy and the Polar Star, and a third nonfunctioning icebreaker, the Polar Sea. Both the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security have expressed the need for greater icebreaker capabilities, with the latter expressing in its Mission Need Statement, “the need for polar icebreaker capabilities provided by the Coast Guard, to ensure that it can meet current and future mission requirements in the polar regions,” elaborating that the Coast Guard is in need of up to six icebreakers to meet this mission. The debate in carrying out this project is centered on the lack of funding for these icebreakers, with the Coast Guard only receiving 2 million USD in 2014, in comparison to the 7.609 million USD budget of 2013. Constructing a single icebreaker would cost approximately 1 billion USD and take 10 years to build.
Russian exploration and development in the Arctic has far surpassed U.S. presence in the Arctic region, despite the fact that the U.S. GDP is eight times that of Russia. The U.S. has alternatively leased icebreakers in the past, including the Swedish “Oden,” which was returned in 2013 due to ice conditions in the Baltic Sea. The U.S. is seriously behind in its exploration of the region, and despite the potential benefits which could be derived, including scientific research, rescue capabilities, and of course, the potential for natural resources, the U.S. has simply not prioritized this endeavor. Members of Congress have asked the administration to propose exploration in the region, yet no formal request has been relayed to Congress. Perhaps President Obama’s recent statement means the region may be a federal priority.
So would it mean stronger presence of the U.S. in the Arctic?
Not necessarily. Until President Obama makes clear his intent to mobilize support through Congress, his statement can only be seen as rhetoric. As his term is drawing to a close, the financial and time constraints of this endeavor are substantial hurdles that make the possibility of prioritizing the Arctic unlikely, in lieu of bureaucratic and funding constraints which will inevitably hinder the impetus for this project, despite the push by the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard. The Polar Star is not at full utilization, and the administration has yet to comment on the 500 million USD needed to resurrect the Polar Sea. Even if action were to be taken now, the year 2030 would be the earliest that a new icebreaker would be up and running. The race to the Arctic will be the new arena for competition between the U.S. and Russia, if the Obama administration makes steps toward exploring the region, necessitating new icebreakers. The Arctic is estimated to house 30% of the world’s untapped natural gas reserves, yet despite the potential benefits of exploring this region, the United States may just be on the sidelines, as it clearly has not prioritized the value of this region as Russia has.
1 Conley, Heather A, 2015 To Build or Not to Build and Icebreaker? That is the $1 Billion Funding Question. Center for Strategic Studies, 1 September. https://csis.org/publication/build-or-not-build-icebreaker-1-billion-funding-question