As Arctic opens up, Coast Guard Academy ready to respond

New London - With large-scale drilling in the Arctic planned for this summer, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy wants to give Coast Guard leaders the information they need to supervise the drilling and plan for more activity in the region in the coming years.

The academy and the University of California's Berkeley School of Law are sponsoring a two-day conference in April on "Leadership for the Arctic."

It will bring maritime safety, marine science and international law experts from around the world together at the academy to talk about the issues facing global leaders as oil companies and tourists head to the Arctic.

Shell Oil has said it wants to begin offshore exploratory drilling this summer when enough of the ice melts, which means that hundreds of people and dozens of vessels that weren't in the Arctic before will be there. The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators has 14 members who operate passenger vessels in the Arctic.

Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr., the commandant, said the Coast Guard has the proper "authorities, people and competencies" to meet the nation's requirements in the Arctic, which he called an "emerging mission area for our country."

"The most pressing requirement right now is we have oil companies that are going to start drilling offshore of the North Slope (of Alaska)," he said in a recent interview. "Having been through Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf, I don't think the potential for that type of spill is there, but you could have a spill."

Papp plans to attend the Arctic conference, scheduled for April 12 to 13.

The event will be the academy's contribution to the service's leaders, who are charged with making strategic decisions, said Craig Allen Sr., an expert on maritime and international law and the academy's first distinguished visiting professor.

"One of the unique things about the academy is we can bring in academic experts to exchange views and help enrich the thinking," said Allen, one of the conference organizers.

One of the service's new national security cutters with the ability to send communications worldwide will head to the Arctic this summer so the Coast Guard can oversee the drilling. A couple of buoy tenders that can break through ice may go, too, and helicopters will be readied in Barrow, Alaska, in case anyone needs to be rescued, Papp said.

The Coast Guard has sent its polar icebreakers to the region in the past, but primarily for scientific missions.

"We need to be able to do our mission in that new area that's now open, with just enough ice to be dangerous," said Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, the academy superintendent who started her career on icebreakers.

"In a lot of ways people misunderstand, with global warming and the ice cap melting, they think it will be safer," Stosz added. "Well no, now people can get themselves into trouble. They can access it, but they don't understand the dangers and the risks."

Russian and Italian judges who sit on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea plan to attend the conference. Several ambassadors were invited, and Papp invited the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The director of the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the deputy assistant secretary for Oceans and Fisheries are panelists.

The academy has a new academic center for maritime policy and strategy, which was created to research policy questions and foster innovative approaches to maritime challenges. It is currently focused on the Arctic.

Stosz said the conference will be the time to advertise the center as a place where the nation's leaders can go to get an academic, nonpolitical perspective. She said she hopes both the center and the conference will increase the academy's national prominence, a long sought-after goal.


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