- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Facing growing competition for the Arctic, President Bush on Monday issued a directive staking the U.S. claim to be an Arctic nation with rights to its resources and travel lanes.

It’s the first presidential declaration of Arctic policy since 1994. The directive comes at a time when Russia has claimed the North Pole seabed, Canada has continued to assert that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway and scientists say global warming is chipping away the polar ice cap but opening up new opportunities to explore for oil, minerals and natural gas.

In the document, Mr. Bush challenges Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage, saying the U.S. must spell out its own claims on natural resources and calling for American defense and homeland security officials to “develop greater capabilities and capacity” to defend U.S. access.

Mr. Bush also renewed his call for the Senate to pass the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has been blocked by conservative senators.

“The Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation, and the Northern Sea route includes straits used for international navigation; the regime of transit passage applies to passage through those straits,” said Mr. Bush, who issued the directive with just a week to go before he leaves office, though the policy process had been under way for months.

“Preserving the rights and duties relating to navigation and overflight in the Arctic region supports our ability to exercise these rights throughout the world, including through strategic straits,” Mr. Bush said.

Two dozen executive offices and agencies worked on the document, which comes as Arctic issues are heating up.

Late last year, the European Union, citing member nations that border the Arctic, asserted its own claims to be involved in discussions on the region.

Mr. Bush’s document focuses heavily on science and environmental protections.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, who was the lone member of Congress to actively participate in the drafting process, said the policy is a needed statement at a time when there is much uncertainty surrounding the Arctic.

“This is a significant step forward for the nation and sends a message to the world that the Arctic is important to the United States, and we stand ready to work cooperatively with the international community in this vital region,” she said.

She added that Congress and President-elect Barack Obama would have to follow through with manpower and money to help make the recommendations policy.

In his directive, Mr. Bush also called on the Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty, which has been pending for years and has been ratified by all of the other nations that border the Arctic.

But the treaty has been blocked by conservative senators, who argue that the U.S. would cede sovereignty and could end up subject to an international tax. Sen. John McCain, Republicans’ presidential nominee last year, came out in opposition to the treaty, which could explain the Bush administration’s delay in releasing the directive.