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Four necessary Arctic planning and infrastructure investments in Alaska

Bob Herron,Reggie Joule
istockphoto

In our last Arctic policy commentary, we discussed the importance of Arctic governance in preparing for the challenges and opportunities facing Alaska in regards to the changing Arctic. Today, we will focus on Arctic Planning and Infrastructure Investment.

Due to ever-increasing activity related to shipping, oil and gas development, commercial fishing, and tourism, immediate investment in Arctic infrastructure is a foremost priority for Alaska and the entire United States. Action is needed to enable the responsible development of resources; facilitate, secure, and benefit from new global transportation routes; and safeguard Arctic residents and ecosystems. As international interest and activity in the Arctic continues to rise, America’s preparedness in the region is of national security importance.

The four main Alaska Northern Waters Task Force (ANWTF) recommendations on Arctic Planning and Infrastructure Investment:

  1. Forward base the Coast Guard in the Arctic.
  2. Fund additional icebreakers and other ice-capable vessels.
  3. Continue the analysis and development of ports and safe harbors in the Arctic region.
  4. Support search and rescue coordination centers along the coast to assist federal, state, and local responders.

      Forward Base the U.S. Coast Guard in the Arctic

      With increased activity in the Arctic, the need to establish a Coast Guard base in the Arctic grows. Currently, the closest Coast Guard base to Arctic waters is in Kodiak, more than 1,000 miles from possible Chukchi Sea drilling sites.

      A greater overall Arctic presence by the Coast Guard is necessary, including the ability to stage assets closer to future shipping, oil and gas drilling, and commercial fishing activities. The federal government can begin planning immediately to establish an Arctic base and moving forward on interim measures for search and rescue and oil spill response in the region. The U. S. Coast Guard’s Arctic missions are manifold. The EPA’s National Contingency Plan requires the U.S. Coast Guard to oversee oil spill planning and preparedness in coastal waters and to supervise any oil spill response.

      With the Coast Guard ramping up its Arctic mission this summer due to Chukchi and Beaufort Sea exploration activities, the time for an Arctic base is not some distant future date: It is now.

      Fund Icebreakers and Other Ice-capable Vessels

      At present, the United States has only one Polar Class icebreaker in service, the Coast Guard’s Healy. A second Polar Class icebreaker, the Polar Star, is not expected to return to service until 2013. Other countries understand the need for more icebreakers: Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, and even China, South Korea, and Japan recently added or plan to add icebreakers to their fleets.

      The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy is a medium strength vessel utilized most recently as a platform for scientific research. Its design is less suited to military missions. This limited number of U.S. icebreakers presents a major challenge to the Coast Guard mission in Alaska. Having ice-capable vessels is vital to maintain sovereignty, continue scientific research, and provide emergency and oil spill response. It takes 10 years to design and build a new icebreaker. The federal budget currently includes money to begin this process -- we encourage these efforts.

      Continue Analysis and Development of Ports and Safe Harbors in the Arctic Region

      Studies by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the Arctic Council, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities all identify the need to develop ports and harbors in Arctic Alaska. Given the long lead times for such construction, ports must be among the highest priorities for Arctic infrastructure.

      Building on the findings of the 2008 and 2011 state/federal Alaska Regional Ports workshops and the 2011 Arctic Ports Charette Study, the state of Alaska and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should continue analyzing options for deep- and medium-draft port and safe harbor construction in Alaska's Arctic. It would be valuable for the state to convene an industry-focused Alaska Arctic Ports Workshop to assess the pros and cons of alternative locations and types of ports, address environmental conditions and engineering approaches, and explore funding alternatives.

      Support Search and Rescue Coordination Centers along the Coast to Assist Federal, State, and Local Responders

      The ANWTF supports search and rescue efforts at all levels -- federal, state, and local. Because the USCG doesn’t yet have a complete Arctic presence, local communities are often the first responders to an emergency.

      The state of Alaska should coordinate planning with the USCG and local communities to develop strategies for increased search and rescue capabilities in the Arctic. Strategies may include purchase of equipment, training, and increased communications capability at the community level.

      Other countries are already moving ahead with similar initiatives.

      Furthermore, on May 12, 2011, the Arctic Council formalized a search-and-rescue (SAR) agreement which coordinates international SAR response in the Arctic and establishes the geographical area of SAR responsibility for each of the eight Arctic nations. The state should work with the federal government to ensure SAR cooperation with Russia and Canada.

      Russia is currently in the process of building ten search & rescue centers along its Arctic coast line -- the first one is slated for completion this August. Given the size of Alaska's Arctic, effective local response will be critical. Let’s begin state planning immediately.

      A number of valuable state initiatives are under way to look at the potential needs and feasibility of infrastructure projects in Alaska’s Arctic region. These include, at a minimum, the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities’ (ADOTPF) Industrial Use Roads Study and several Arctic Ports studies. We applaud these efforts and encourage them to move forward expeditiously.

      Obviously, this is just a partial list of infrastructure investment needs for Alaska to take advantage of the economic opportunities the melting Arctic waters present. Roads, airports, and many other maritime and terrestrial assets are critically needed. It will also be important to consider climate change when planning future infrastructure investment in Alaska’s Arctic. Fluctuations in temperature and precipitation will have implications for both existing facilities and future construction.

      It’s clear to us that Alaska must embrace its Arctic destiny and, in partnering with the federal government, industry, and local Arctic communities, make the tough infrastructure investment decisions that will provide a basis for continued economic opportunity for the next century and beyond.

      Bob Herron (D-Bethel) has represented House District 38, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, in the Alaska Legislature since 2008. A member of the Northern Waters Task Force, Rep. Herron last Session sponsored HJR 15, supporting the Arctic Caucus; and this Session is sponsoring HJR 34, asking Congress to fund icebreakers and a Coast Guard Arctic base.

      Reggie Joule has represented House District 40, the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough, and Shishmaref in the Alaska Legislature since 1996. He was the Chair of the Northern Waters Task Force and is the Chair of the Alaska House Bush Caucus. This Session, he is the sponsor of HCR 23, which would create a 17 member Arctic Policy Commission.

      The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.