The Alaska lieutenant governor's office announced last week a study to examine shipping in the Arctic on the heels of a recent sea ice study showing that possible unescorted Arctic shipping could be largely possible by 2040.
While fewer than 50 vessels reportedly moved through the Northern Sea Route above Russia in 2012, numbers of vessels, many carrying oil, LNG and other energy-related products, is only expected to increase. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said China has recently announced it intends to ship some 15 percent of its world trade vessels on Arctic routes in coming years.
As a result, Treadwell and others are looking at how this increase could impact the state, both positively in the form of economic improvements, but also negatively, inspiring the need for marine safety agreements with itinerant vessels.
The study, which is expected to cost $200,000 and take around 18 months, will be followed by a conference with Arctic shipping stakeholders to discuss the document's findings, Treadwell said. University of Alaska Fairbanks will conduct the study, which will be funded by the State Department of Commerce.
Treadwell, who announced the study at a meeting of the Arctic Parliamentarians in Washington, D.C., said one of the study's areas of focus would be how to make sure Alaskans benefited from the increased shipping traffic, be it with a port that serves the international shipping needs, or through capitalizing on opportunities to acquire less expensive energy sources for the rural communities along the shipping route.
"We want to find out if there is anything that trade can do to make the cost of energy less in coastal Alaska," he said.
The study will also focus on marine safety. Currently, itinerant vessels passing along Alaska's shores go largely undocumented and while agreements are in place with most Arctic players to collaborate on spill response efforts, little is generally known about the vessels transiting the area, such as what sort of response equipment they have on board, what type of vessel they are, and even their location.
"We are going to look at what kind of contingency plan we can try to bring about," Treadwell said.
While finding out what the state needs to compete and thrive in the newly expanding Arctic market are crucial, the question of how to fund such efforts is a good one, Treadwell noted.
"The biggest challenge for us in Alaska is that we know what we'd like to have, and now we have to pay for it," he said. "That's question No. 1."
At the meeting in Washington, D.C., Treadwell said Alaska is seeking to attract close to $100 billion for energy projects. He noted that while Arctic nations may be competing for such investments, they can also work together to promote investment.
This and other topics will lead the agenda at the upcoming Arctic Policy Commission's first meeting, which will be held Saturday in Juneau. The commission was created by the Alaska Legislature last year.
Treadwell said as shipping opens up in the Arctic, decisions that the United States and Alaska makes now about investment can have long-reaching implications for the state, such as where shipping ports will be located, be they in Japan, Russia, Dutch Harbor or Adak.
"We have to make sure it's an economic driver for Alaska," he said. "Does a new Arctic ocean mean jobs for Alaskans?"
Arctic transportation report open for comment
Another study recently completed and now open for public comment covers many of the same topics as the Alaska version from a national perspective. The "U.S. Arctic Marine Transportation System: Overview and Priorities for Action" completed last month by the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System, outlines the state of the Arctic transportation world and makes recommendations on everything from physical infrastructure needs to Marine Transportation System response services needed.
"Growth in human use of the Arctic illustrates the need in both the short and longer term for a more robust MTS infrastructure, whether for energy development, spill response, search and rescue, indigenous and environmental protections, or maritime law enforcement," the report said.
The report noted that vessel traffic in the Arctic region had increased from 120 vessels to 250 vessels between 2008 and 2012, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The growth rate was particularly high for tank vessels: tugs, and other cargo vessels were the second and third largest categories. Bering Straight transits increased more than 100 percent as well.
"Existing policies are sufficient to permit delivery of Federal MTS services to a changing Arctic," the report said. "However, the CMTS also concludes that the existing capacity of U.S. marine transportation infrastructure and services is inadequate both to support increased Arctic traffic and to mitigate the risks accompanying economic growth."
Less than 1 percent of the charted, navigationally significant Arctic waters have been surveyed with modern technology to determine depths and depict hazards to navigation, it said. And there are no harbors of refuge or deep water port facilities in the region. The nearest facilities and vessels for emergency response and spill response are hundreds of miles away, delaying response times, and even weather and ice predictions are limited to a few days.
"Such large gaps in data, services and infrastructure compound the difficulties that Federal agencies face as they attempt to deliver an adequate MTS to a region already challenged by environmental conditions," it said.
The document makes specific recommendations for the United States to take various actions, including joining the controversial Law of the Sea Convention and allow CMTS to take a leadership role in the Arctic Marine Transportation System coordination. It also recommends improvements to sea ice and marine weather forecasts, mapping of Arctic waters and improved communication capacities.
Lastly, it recommends improving Arctic environmental response management, ensuring effective search and rescue and emergency preparedness, and increasing U.S. icebreaking capacity.
"The CMTS goal is to provide high-level leadership and improved coordination that promotes safety, security, efficiency, economic vitality, sound environmental integration, and reliability of the MTS for commercial, recreational and national defense requirements," the report's introduction concludes. "CMTS agencies believe it is crucial to embrace this goal, pursue this opportunity and, at the very least, develop a comprehensive plan of action to address development of the U.S. Arctic MTS and supporting elements across all areas and stakeholders. An appropriate mix of MTS services, actions and impacts will bridge existing gaps and provide a safe, secure and environmentally sound MTS to address the full range of issues impacting the U.S. Arctic and the Arctic region at large. The time to do this is now."
Public comments on the draft report are accepted until April 22 and can be submitted to ArcticMTS@cmts.gov. Two moderated phone calls also provide opportunity for comment:
• All Stakeholders: Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 3:00–4:30 p.m. Eastern Time (Please RSVP
ArcticMTS@cmts.gov to receive call in information);
• Alaska Tribal Representatives: Friday, April 5, 2013, 1:00–2:30 p.m. Eastern Time (Further information will be provided directly to Alaskan Tribes via Federal Tribal Liaisons though questions or comments regarding the April 5 phone call to ArcticMTS@cmts.gov are most welcome.).
The report can be seen at CMTS.gov.
Carey Restino is the editor of The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this story first appeared. It is republished here with permission.