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Originally published Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 4:57 PM

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Spend money on needed Arctic icebreakers to assert U.S. interests

Practical investments in heavy polar icebreakers must be made to represent long-term U.S. interests in a changing Arctic environment.

Times editorial columnist

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Epic changes in the Arctic climate and landscape are seemingly unstoppable. Environmentalists concerned about what comes next should rally support for new U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers.

That might sound like quirky advice, but global excitement about a coveted maritime passage reinforces the need for a vigilant U.S. presence.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, has renewed efforts, along with Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, to point Congress toward spending money on four heavy polar icebreakers. At more than $850 million apiece, this proposal will take some patient politicking.

Larsen explained in a Wednesday phone call the approach for now is to support putting money in the Pentagon budget for the Navy to use its acquisition and procurement skills to get the icebreakers built.

The Navy would transfer the icebreakers to the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Larsen is intent on not only properly equipping the Coast Guard for its role, but also raising the priority and visibility of the assignment within Congress.

Getting lawmakers to pay attention to the changes in the Arctic and address the new reality is a challenge well beyond Capitol Hill.

Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, sees the same pattern.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has talked about a stronger Canadian naval presence in the Arctic, but has done little to make it happen, Byers said in a Tuesday phone interview.

Canada is spending money expanding its fleet of offshore patrol ships, but they are not designed for the rigors of polar duty. Byers wonders if Harper’s skepticism about climate change explains his reluctance to move ahead in the Arctic.

Canada currently chairs the Arctic Council, an association of nations — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the United States — that oversee policy. Six international organizations representing Arctic Indigenous People have permanent observer status.

Byers gives the Obama administration credit for raising the visibility of the council. Larsen notes the Obama White House picked up on efforts started by the Bush administration.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton elevated the importance of the council for foreign ministers by being the first senior foreign-policy official to attend a session. The U.S. will take over the council gavel in 2015.

Playing against Cold War stereotype, Russia makes a point about promoting international cooperation.

Byers quotes a 2010 speech by Vladimir Putin who said, “It is well known that if you stand alone, you cannot survive in the Arctic. It is very important to maintain the Arctic as a region of peace and cooperation.”

Other nations watching the ice melt are as eager as the Russians to take thousands of miles off trade routes. China, Japan, South Korea, India, Italy and Singapore have observer status on the council. China has an enormous modern icebreaker of its own.

Byers ticks off a compelling environmental checklist of issues to monitor: Are tankers double-hulled? What is the status of weather- and ice-forecasting capabilities and the adequacy of refuge, and search-and-rescue facilities?

Security issues, including smuggling and human-trafficking, loom with increases in shipping. Byers also points to oversight of future oil and gas exploration in exclusive economic zones.

U.S. interests must be articulated in the international arena, and represented in the Arctic. This country lags far behind, and suffers from, oh, let’s call it an icebreaker gap.

The Coast Guard reported the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star left Seattle Tuesday for Antarctica to resupply the research station at McMurdo. “Safe journey” to the crew of 140.

The Polar Star was fresh from Arctic sea trials after a three-year, $90 million overhaul at Vigor Shipyards in Seattle. The USCGC Polar Sea, a mothballed heavy icebreaker, awaits a decision on refurbishing, that Larsen estimates at $100 million.

The Arctic summer ice is melting, but through the darkness from fall to spring the Arctic will be frozen solid.

The U.S., and Canada, must be present and equipped to assert their national interests, and enforce maritime protocols in a fragile environment.

Icebreakers are a pragmatic investment to protect the Arctic. Spend the money.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is

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