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U.S. lagging in rush to cultivate Arctic

| Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 7:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The United States is racing to keep pace with stepped-up activity in the once sleepy Arctic frontier, but it is far from being in the lead.

Nations across the world are hurrying to stake claims to the Arctic's resources, which might be home to 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas. There are emerging fisheries and hidden minerals. Cruise liners loaded with tourists are sailing the Arctic's frigid waters in increasing numbers. Cargo traffic along the Northern Sea Route, one of two shortcuts across the top of the Earth in summer, is on the rise.

The United States, which takes over the two-year rotating chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2015, has not ignored the Arctic, but critics say it is lagging behind the other seven: Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada and Denmark, through the semiautonomous territory of Greenland.

“On par with the other Arctic nations, we are behind — behind in our thinking, behind in our vision,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said. “We lack basic infrastructure, basic funding commitments to be prepared for the level of activity expected in the Arctic.”

At a meeting before Thanksgiving with Secretary of State John Kerry, Murkowski suggested he name a U.S. ambassador or envoy to the Arctic — someone who could coordinate work on the Arctic being done by more than 20 federal agencies and take the lead on increasing U.S. activities in the region.

Murkowski is trying to get Americans to stop thinking that the Arctic is just Alaska's problem. “People in Iowa and New Hampshire need to view the United States as an Arctic nation. Otherwise, when you talk about funding, you're never going to get there,” Murkowski said. She added that even non-Arctic nations are deeply engaged: “India and China are investing in icebreakers.”

The United States has three aging icebreakers.

The melting Arctic also is creating a new front of security concerns.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said expanding Russia's military presence in the Arctic was a top priority for his nation's armed forces. Russia this year began rehabilitating a Soviet-era base at the New Siberian Islands and has pledged to restore a number of Arctic military air bases that fell into neglect because of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin said he doesn't envision a conflict between Russia and the United States, both of which have called for keeping the Arctic a peaceful zone. But he added, “Experts know quite well that it takes U.S. missiles 15 to 16 minutes to reach Moscow from the Barents Sea,” which is a part of the Arctic Ocean near Russia's shore.

While the threat of militarization remains, the battle right now is on the economic level as countries vie for oil, gas and other minerals, including rare earth metals used to make high-tech products such as cellphones.

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