Bill focuses on Arctic maritime opportunities

Murkowski: U.S. must maintain leadership role in this region of global importance

Legislation calling for creation of an Arctic shipping federal advisory committee has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, in an effort to improve the safety and reliability of maritime transportation in Arctic waters.

The 15-member committee would be tasked to study options for U.S. leadership in Arctic shipping, including construction, operation and maintenance of current and future maritime infrastructure needs, including deep water ports, for vessels transiting Arctic sea routes.

Committee responsibilities would also include services to improve maritime safety and environmental protection in the Arctic region, plus consideration of a fee-for-service model for necessary services for those using Arctic waterways.

The legislation was introduced in early November by Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both R-Alaska, and Roger Wicker, R-MS, as S.2786.

Its stated purpose is “to establish a federal advisory committee to provide policy recommendations to the Secretary of Transportation on positioning the U.S. to take advantage of emerging opportunities for Arctic maritime transportation.”

Within two years of enactment of the legislation the committee would have to provide its recommendations on these issues to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Murkowski said that with environmental changes opening sea routes potentially year-round and increased global interest in the area, there will be greater opportunities along with greater challenges.

“It’s imperative that the U.S. maintains its leadership role in this region of global importance,” she said. Along with prioritizing safety and management of the region, “the U.S. must be proactive in developing a strategic plan to support safe maritime transportation in the region.”

While the legislation itself is new, the concept of creating an Arctic Regional Citizens Advisory Council has been discussed for over 10 years, said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and marine conservation specialist.

The proposed legislation “is a step in the right direction, in that it recognizes the need for enhanced oversight of this increasing risk,” said Steiner, now an environmental consultant based in Anchorage, “but the act is flawed in a number of key aspects.”

Committee membership would be largely governmental, with a minority of citizen stakeholders and no marine environmental seats designated, Steiner said. The committee’s existence would be short term and sunset after writing a report, there is no mention or provision of funding, and the measure ignores offshore and onshore oil development issues, he said. The legislation is also more focused on development and encouragement of Arctic shipping than marine safety, he said.

“The RCAC (regional citizens’ advisory committee) concept would be better suited to provide oversight of these issues in the Arctic,” he said.

As proposed, the Arctic RCAC would have $5 million to $10 million per year continuously from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which now has over $5 billion in it, with government agencies as non-voting, ex-officio members and citizen stakeholders running the group, he said.

Under S.2786, the advisory committee would include appointees from the federal Departments of Transportation, Commerce, State and Defense; The Coast Guard, the states of Alaska and Washington, plus individual representative of Alaska Native tribes, Alaska Native subsistence co-management groups affected by Arctic maritime transportation, coastal communities affected by Arctic shipping, the shipping industry, the marine safety community, the Arctic business community and Alaska maritime labor organizations.

Under legislation drafted in 2009, but never introduced in Congress, stakeholders would have dominated the committee.

Voting members would have represented tribal councils for Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Utqiagvik (Barrow), Wainwright, Point Lay, Point Hope, Kivalina and Kotzebue; the North Slope Borough Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Eskimo Walrus Commission, Alaska Beluga Whale Commission, Ice Seal Commission, Nanuq Commission, environmental organizations and the tourism business. Non-voting members would have been the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, Department of Defense, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“The good thing is after many years of no response it (S2786) is recognition that they see the need for more advice and input, but their solution to that doesn’t get you there,” Steiner said.