Arctic is top priority for Homeland Security – but one of many

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. (Photo courtesy DHS)

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. (Photo courtesy DHS)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is asking the Secretary of Homeland Security to make the Arctic a priority for the Administration, particularly for the Coast Guard. She got no disagreement.

Homeland Security is the Swiss Army Knife of government departments. It has a huge range of duties, so when its $38 billion budget request came before a Senate panel yesterday, Secretary Jeh Johnson heard a wide range of pleas. Senators emphasized the need to protect the border, encourage trade and improve disaster response. For Sen. Murkowski, though, it’s all about the Arctic. With ocean travel increasing, Murkowski told Johnson the world is looking to the United States for leadership in the region.

“Whether it’s cruise ships going over the top, whether it’s container vessels going through the Bering straits, the level of activity that we’re seeing there is unprecedented, and how we handle it is going to be key going forward.”

Someday, Murkowski told him, his department may have to contend with German tourists coming ashore at Barrow. She says the Coast Guard – also part of Homeland Security — should have more icebreakers. It has only three, and one is in dry-dock. Murkowski also asked him to consider homeporting one of the Coast Guard’s national security ships in Kodiak, because the nearest now is in California.

“I’m told that it’s 24 days to get a national security cutter from Alameda up to the Chukchi- Beaufort Sea area. That’s a long way to be underway when we have an incident that would require that level of a vessel up there.”

Johnson said what he told every senator: He agrees with them. He says the Arctic is a priority to the Administration.

“I believe, first and foremost that our priorities in the Arctic surround increasing commerce there,” Johnson said.

He said replacing the older of the heavy ice breakers, the Polar Star, is still in the long-term acquisition plan. Johnson says no decision has yet been made about the Polar Sea, the icebreaker not in service.

“But over all I do recognize the importance of having heavy ice breakers,” he said.

Across the Capitol, the head of the Coast Guard faced criticism from a House panel today over its $10 billion portion of the Homeland Security budget request. Some members said it was wasteful, others said the amount dedicated to modernizing the fleet is inadequate. At the Senate hearing, though, the focus was on each senator’s home-state priorities. After Murkowski talked about the Arctic, it was Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran’s turn to discuss his top goal for the department: safeguarding agriculture.