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Oil in the strategic Arctic Ocean opens potential U.S.- Russia conflict

U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy navigating the Arctic Ocean (Photo Credit to Martin Jakobsson, Stockholm University)

Among the consequences of  global warming, the Arctic Ocean has become a more strategic region for the United States and Canada. Russian economic and military interests in the Arctic are common knowledge. They are neighbors up there, and the Arctic has strategic and security value for both Americans and Russians.

One of the U.S. protagonists in the protection of American interests in the Arctic Ocean is the United States Coast Guard (USCG).

The important role of the USCG will require higher budgets, more personnel,  better equipment  and more boats to patrol the area and respond to incidents, according to Coast Guard Commander Adm. Robert Papp, who testified Friday at a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in Anchorage, Alaska.

Admiral Papp  said the Coast Guard has been unable to run exercises inside the Arctic Circle due to a lack of suitable vessels that can sail those difficult waters.

Papp informed the Senate that the USCG conducted some limited coastal drills  during open water (ice-free) periods, but now Papp said in written testimony that  “the Coast Guard will require specialized vessels, aircraft, and crews trained to operate in extreme climates”.

As oil companies prepare to start exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean, the Coast Guard has been conducting exercises with skimming systems and oil recovery systems around Alaska  to avoid a new environmental disaster like the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, no exercises have occurred north of the Arctic Circle to date, Papp informed to the Senate, as oil recovery systems cannot operate in areas with too much ice.

Admiral Papp defended the White House fiscal 2012 budget´s  request for more funding of research and development on oil detection and recovery in icy water, in order to extend the U.S. capability for skimming and recovery systems.

Papp said the USCG is interested in regularly transitting ice-laden waters,  opening seasonal bases for air and boat operations in the Arctic and developing a force structure that can operate in extreme cold and ice.

The Coast Guard only has one active boat that can sail through icy seas — the Healy, a medium icebreaker, which is used for scientific research.  The USCG now plans to bring a heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, back into service by 2013 after a major refurbishing.

Investment in more resources for the USCG is very important as oil companies are increasingly moving into the Arctic, Papp said. Shell  has submitted a plan to start exploring wells in the Arctic in the spring of 2012,  and other companies like ConocoPhillips and Statoil may soon follow.