Protect America's natural treasure in Alaska's Arctic

By:  Lance Dickie
Source: The Seattle Times

The nasty storm out of the Bering Sea that pounded Alaska's western coast is a timely reminder of the special challenges that exist in a special place.

Certainly the climatic complexity does not improve heading north into the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

The Obama administration is eager to allow oil drilling in the Arctic with no apparent indication the hazards in those harsh conditions are well understood or accounted for.

Images of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf ought to be plastered around the U.S. Department of the Interior and its relevant bureaus.

Alaska hardly lacks for vast expanses to punch holes in the earth for resource extraction without inventing new places in fragile offshore ecosystems.

Alaska is already a tough environment to work in without needlessly and blindly adding high winds and seas and ice to technologically dicey operations and emergency spill responses.

There is no reason to have confidence in drilling operations in extreme conditions or the ability of the U.S. government to oversee them.

The U.S. oil industry has an abundant inventory of leased space to drill in the Lower 48 states, but the pressure on Alaska continues. A laudable effort to purposefully move in the other direction seeks to designate the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. This would set aside 1.5 million acres of the refuge for special protection.

The Arctic Refuge was created a half century ago by President Eisenhower, and later enlarged by President Carter. The push to open the refuge and Coastal Plain to drilling has been relentless. The refuge, oh, by the way, is east of the 24 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Protecting the Coastal Plain goes to the heart of the classic vision of Alaska and its critters. Proponents note the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describe the Coastal Plain as "the center for wildlife activity."

As the Obama administration and Congress weigh in on allowing more oil leases and protecting a biological wonderland, a curious budgetary and policy dispute is under way over icebreakers.

As a shrinking polar ice cap expands the role and mission for icebreakers, the U.S. Coast Guard apparently would abide reducing its capacity by half.

A plan strongly resisted by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell would mothball one vessel, the Polar Sea, for parts to use on the Polar Star. The decommissioning, opposed by the White House, is part of a GOP appropriations bill up for a pending vote.

These are strange maneuvers in a time when even the Chinese are building another icebreaker to join the Snow Dragon, and the Russians have sixteen. The U.S. already hires out the resupply of McMurdo Station in Antarctica to foreign icebreakers.

As the ice melts in the Arctic, with the looming prospects of more maritime activity across the top of the world, the prospect of the U.S. not having the hardware to support a physical presence is mystifying. America's newest icebreaker is basically a support vessel for science.

Maintaining the Polar Sea and Polar Star is an economic plus for Puget Sound, but the bigger picture is an adequate Coast Guard response in all of the country's territorial waters.

Alaska is boldly back in the news because of a nasty storm, but the nation's 49th state is always on the radar because of its natural and economic bounty. America's Arctic is a treasure to be nurtured and protected.