On Monday, the 11 Alaska State Lawmakers who travelled to Washington, D.C over the weekend returned to Juneau with a sobering message about protecting America's oil and gas drilling rights in the Arctic Ocean.
They said that China -- a nation of 1.3 billion people -- was eyeing the Arctic, and that there was a good chance that the Chinese were hoping to get their hands on some of its wealth.
Similar concerns had been expressed by United State Senator Mark Begich (D) Alaska when he spoke to a joint-session of the Alaska State Legislature on March 5th.
At that time, Begich warned that China -- even though it is not an Arctic Nation -- has been arguing that it is entitled to a large share of the Arctic's Resources.
According to Begich, the Chinese want to see the Arctic Ocean's energy riches divided up among all nations -- according to their population.
This would be a serious setback for the United States -- as well as for other nations bordering the Arctic Ocean. If China prevails in that argument, it would be entitled to 1/7th of all the riches the Arctic has to offer.
Alaska State Representative Bob Herron (D) Bethel argues that China's assertion is a big problem. He says that studies show that up to one fourth of all the world's remaining hydrocarbons (mainly oil and gas) are located in the Arctic. That's a huge bonanza. Both Herron and Alaska State Senator Fred Dyson (R) Eagle River say hydrocarbons -- mainly oil and natural gas -- are locked-up in the Arctic.
Both Herron and Dyson agree: The United States must sign the 'Law of the Sea' Treaty. They say this would assure U.S. mineral and energy rights in the Arctic Ocean out to a distance of up to 350 miles.
State Senator John Coghill (R) North Pole says that his delegation worked hard in Washington -- over the weekend -- to get U.S. officials to move on Arctic issues.
'America just has to wake up!' Coghill said. 'It's an Arctic nation. It's our responsibility -- as Alaskans t-- o make sure that that's the case."
State Senator Cathy Giessel (R) Anchorage said that while she was in Washington, she listened to a lecture by an expert on China. He said that China was intensively interested in the Arctic, and that America must move to preserve her rights there.
Giessel says that in addition to signing the 'Law of the Sea' treaty, America must get on with building a second icebreaker. She said that the USCGC Healy alone just cannot do the job.
Giessel pointed out that last year 7,000 ships travelled the Bering Strait. She says that traffic will go up considerably in years to come. She says that without Coast Guard protection, we risk another environmental nightmare like the Selendang Ayu. It was the Malaysian Soybean Carrier that broke apart on a reef in Unalaska, killing 6. The ship also spilled over 300,000 gallons of heavy oil onto the rich fishing grounds of the Aleutians.
All the Senators warned that not only must the U.S. sign 'The Law of the Sea' Treaty, it must also press-on with the building of a new icebreaker. Last week, Congress agreed to at least start the funding of such a ship.
In addition, lawmakers here say it's critical that the U.S. maintain its current fleet of jet fighters to support the Coast Guard in enforcement efforts. The Pentagon has been considering substantial cutbacks at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks.
As if to underline the current stalemate, the 'Alaska Maritime Exchange' released tracking data that showed a Chinese Icebreaker -- the Xue Long travelling to within perhaps 10 miles of Alaska's Gambell Island back in September 2010.
The Exchange said China had actually done this 4 times in the last few years. And there was at least one time the ship visited the southern end of the Chukchi Sea.
Some estimates have indicated there could be 25 billion barrels of oil beneath the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. If it's true, that would be as much as the greatest proven oil find in North American history, Prudhoe Bay.
Is that's what keeps attracting a Chinese icebreaker to visit the shores off Alaska? Some lawmakers here think so.And the U.S. Artic Rsearch Commission reported today that China will conduct another Arctic Expedition later this summe.
Meanwhile Alaska Marine BiologistConservationist Rick Steiner believes that the lawmakers concerns may be overstated. Steiner says there is absolutely no risk of military confrontation between the U.S. and China over Arctic Oil. And he does not think that the signing of the "Law of the Sea Treaty" is as urgent as some of the lawmakers contend. Steiner says the vast majority of Arctic Energy riches are located close enough to Alaskan Shores to fall within already-recognized jurisdictional boundaries of the U.S.
He believes that some of those who support Arctic Drilling are using tactics designed to get people's attention -- so that they can engage in what Steiner calls frighteneing "people into accepting the high risks of Arctic Ocean Drilling."
Steiner would like to see the "Law of the Sea" Treaty passed. But he would also like to see the Arctic treated in the the way the Antarctic is now treated. The Antarctic belongs to no nation, cannot be exploited for its energy and mineral wealth, and is set aside as an untouched laboratory for science.
However this is a battle that environmentalists appear to be losing at the moment. Shell Oil Company has indicated that it has now cleared many significant regulatory hurdles, and is prepared to begin exploratory drilling exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer.