Aug 26 2019
The Polar Regions are Vital to our Economy and Security
The United States was once considered a continental power whose limits were the Gulf of Mexico and Rio Grande to the south and two oceans to the east and west. But America is also an Arctic power. Since 1867, when our country purchased Alaska for two cents an acre from Russia, we have had a long shoreline on the Arctic Ocean.
What happens in this region affects our entire nation’s economy and security. Billions of dollars in commercial shipping goes through the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. Those vessels transport oil and gas resources discovered beneath the ice, bring seafood from local fisheries around the world, and connect the hundreds of thousands of Americans who call Alaska home.
Securing the Arctic
Securing America’s interests in the Arctic requires a fleet of ships capable of patrolling and exploring the region. The Senate Commerce Committee, which I chair, oversees the U.S. Coast Guard, the tip of the spear projecting American power around the globe, including in the Arctic. I recently traveled to Alaska to speak with the men and women at Air Station Kodiak and aboard the Coast Guard Cutters Healy and Douglas Munro about their missions and priorities.
The Healy is one of only two fully operational polar icebreakers in the Coast Guard’s fleet. It can break up to five feet of ice in temperatures as low as negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping key trade routes open. It also performs search and rescue operations, escorts other ships, and enforces our laws and treaties. At any time, there may be as many as 50 scientists on the Healy, turning it into a floating laboratory.
The Arctic’s commercial potential is increasing at a time of rising threats in the region from our geopolitical rivals, including Russia and China. Russia in particular has a great deal of experience navigating frozen waters near the North Pole, but America is building and improving more ships like the Healy to close the gap.
The Commerce Committee recently approved the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2019. Mississippi’s expert shipbuilders are already on course to build a new Polar Security Cutter (icebreaker), and this bill would authorize the manufacture of additional vessels to meet the Coast Guard’s growing needs in the Polar Regions.
The Commerce Committee is working to promote fisheries development, enforce our fisheries laws, and help coastal communities from Alaska to the Magnolia State protect jobs by responding quickly after fisheries disasters. The Coast Guardsmen aboard the Douglas Munro and I discussed how the service safeguards the area’s valuable fish stock. These men and women prevent illegal fishing off Alaska’s coasts, just as their counterparts in the Gulf protect commercial fishermen in Mississippi. These two states may be far apart, but they have common interests and issues, and the Coast Guard is protecting them every day.
Past Follies, Today’s Successes
When President Andrew Johnson put the treaty for the Alaska Purchase before the U.S. Senate, it was passed by just one vote and was often called “Seward’s Folly,” after then-Secretary of State William H. Seward. Many doubted that this frozen tundra would ever be valuable. Gold was discovered just a few decades later and oil soon after that. Our 49th state continues to reap rewards for the American public.
The folly today would be to fail to look after America’s interests in this increasingly vital region. My visit to Alaska was a reminder of this mission, and I will continue my work in the Commerce Committee to ensure our success.