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Alaska lieutenant governor draws attention to Arctic maritime safety

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst photo

Editor's note (Feb. 4, 2013): The article below has been updated with additional discussion of Article 234 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

On the first day of the Arctic Frontiers conference, Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell gave a speech full of metaphors heralding a "new age of Arctic global shipping."

In the "geopolitics of a new ocean" (a phrase ripe for unpacking), he called for making the Arctic "safe, secure, and reliable at sea."

Treadwell drew attention to the need for a contingency plan to deal with the potential increase in maritime traffic. In particular, he stated that the International Maritime Organization's Polar Code needs to be reconsidered, while more environmental and safety plans need to be put in place. Highlighting a particular loophole, he argued that there are few regulations governing vessels that pass through the Bering Strait without stopping at any of the ports along the way.

This will have to be solved with a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Russia. Treadwell also pointed to the importance of whaling and sealing to indigenous peoples. While companies partaking in resource extraction in Alaska work closely with indigenous peoples to keep their interests in mind, itinerant vessel traffic does not. "The big boats must keep the small boats – the fishermen and whalers – in mind," he averred.

The U.S. will chair the Arctic Council beginning in 2015, after Canada has had its turn. He stated that American leadership should focus on building a "lasting legacy of safety at sea." So far, he argued that Russia is taking the lead on making shipping both safe and attractive to shipping companies, making the rates of icebreaker escorts competitive. The U.S. will have to strengthen its own responsibilities, starting with replacing its icebreakers.

Adequate search and rescue needed

Treadwell cited the recent examples of accidents at sea, including the Kulluk oil rig grounding a month ago near Kodiak and the grounding of a soybean tanker off Unalaska Island in 2004, as evidence that Alaska – and the rest of the Arctic – needs to have adequate search and rescue capabilities at the ready.

Treadwell also discussed UNCLOS' Article 234, which Canada and Russia favor as it allows them to enact additional regulations in their icy straits. It's often called the Canadian clause, as it originated in part from the country's enactment of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA) in 1970. The AWPPA came full-circle with Article 234 in 2009, when Canada extended the area covered by AWPPA from 100 to 200 nautical miles offshore. Yet the problem with Article 234, as Treadwell pointed out, is its vagueness. He stated, "The Arctic states need a consensus on what the Treaty's Article 234 means to shipping." The article fails to define "icy," a word which is contentious and depends on both the duration and percentage of ice coverage. As the ice melts, it becomes even harder to define what "icy" is. Complicating matters even more, Article 234 also allows states to enact "non-discriminatory laws and regulations" where ice creates "obstructions or exceptional hazards to navigation" or where there are "severe climactic conditions." Treadwell asked, "What defines "severe climate" in a place where the climate is steadily changing?" As the seas warm and the ice becomes more free-flowing and hazardous, that could actually strengthen Article 234, then, even though the ice is melting. Transport Canada is happy to point out that the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, "indicates that, under certain conditions, melting ice could make shipping in the Canadian Arctic more dangerous; not less," for this would bolster Canada's rights under Article 234. Treadwell asked, "Do we give precedence to 234 over other international agreements? We need to find an approach that works." Though he ultimately promotes the usage of Article 234, it is clear that he hopes to find a resolution to its interpretation, whereas it might be more in Canadian (and Russian) interests to leave it ambiguous.

A second theme of Treadwell's speech trumpeted the need for economic development that benefits coastal communities. He wants to make the growth of northern industries and transportation benefit northern residents, as opposed to letting the revenues flow southward, as they are wont to do.

He said, "We need to prioritize the health and wealth of our communities if this is going to be a golden age of the North." If, in this so-called "ocean of opportunities," Arctic shipping increases, then it should be able to generate jobs for Alaskans. Already, Anchorage is the fifth largest air cargo port in the world, handling goods going between the Far East and North America.

Here, Treadwell's presentation paralleled that of Canadian Health Minister Leona Agglukaq's. In her speech, she called for "need for development in the North that serves the people of the North." The North American delegations thus seemed to more parochial, focusing on national economic growth, as opposed to the Nordic countries, whose representatives had a more global outlook.

It's unclear how the Arctic states will achieve this greater prosperity together, let alone individually. Treadwell argued that so far, the Arctic states are farther ahead on safety than on economic regulations. Safety, however, is of course easier to coordinate than any sort of international strategies for economic growth (just think of the EU, for example).

Treadwell spoke of using the St. Lawrence Seaway, which handles 30 million tons of cargo a year, as a model for Arctic shipping. The thing to note here, though, is that while the St. Lawrence Seaway falls on the border between the U.S. and Canada, both the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route each fall within one country's jurisdiction. Yet in the mid-20th century, the St. Lawrence Seaway also fell privy to a bout of Canadian nationalism. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower thought it would represent a threat to national security if Canada controlled the seaway, so decisions were made to allow bilateral management. Today, the U.S. is still threatened – albeit not to as high a degree, as the Northwest Passage does not have any major cargo traffic, unlike the St. Lawrence Canal – by Canada's claiming of the Northwest Passage as internal straits. A further study comparing the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Northwest Passage, particularly which aspects of the former Treadwell would like to apply to the latter, would be interesting.

In a somewhat grandiose statement, Treadwell proclaimed, "The Arctic truly can fuel and feed the world." Yet throughout the conference, I heard people downplay, over and over, the role of Arctic oil and gas in future commodities markets. The negative outlook, I think, stems from a number of sources, including the fracking revolution in the U.S. and Shell's numerous failures in Alaska.

In the near term, the Arctic might have more luck with providing protein to the rest of the world thanks to its bountiful and largely well-managed fisheries. To illustrate this point, right now, I'm on the Lofoten Islands, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, where some of the world's largest population of cod swims offshore. Thousands of fish every day are taken out of the sea, strung up to dry, and eventually ground up into fish powder that is shipped to Nigeria, of all places.

The people laboring to hang all the fish? Latvians and Lithuanians. So much for northern communities struggling to create jobs – here in Norway, they have to import workers to fill the demand for labor.

If the Arctic does indeed fuel and feed the lower latitudes, then perhaps Alaska can feed itself, too, so to speak. At one point, he noted that Alaska is still trying to justify the purchase of Seward's Icebox by the U.S. That might be because despite all the oil Alaska gets out of the ground and all the fish it exports, the federal government's expenditures still outpace the taxes it takes in, according to the Economist. If Arctic shipping is to benefit Alaska, hopefully it will indirectly benefit the other 49 states, too.

More on Treadwell's speech is here