Alaska’s US senators push for a new Arctic shipping committee

A proposed Arctic Shipping Federal Advisory Committee would study new and emerging seaways, the feasibility of deepwater ports and safety and environmental policies.

By Melody Schreiber - November 13, 2019
The Port of Nome handles an increasing amount of Arctic shipping. A new advisory committee could help guide U.S. federal policy on shipping and ports in the Arctic. (Yereth Rosen)

A new formal advisory committee could be one way to consolidate existing but scattered discussions about the U.S. federal approach to Arctic ports and shipping — and lead to better policies.

That’s the promise behind a bill introduced last week by Alaska’s two U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan (both Republicans), to create an Arctic Shipping Federal Advisory Committee.

The bill, which was also sponsored by Mississippi senator Roger Wicker, comes as Arctic maritime activity is on the rise.

The proposed committee would make recommendations on the development of Arctic sea routes, the construction and operation of deepwater ports, and the establishment of policies for traversing Arctic seaways safely and reliably.

It would have 15 members from federal agencies, Alaska and Washington state, Alaska Native groups, coastal communities, subsistence groups, and shipping industry representatives.

Ed Page, a retired captain in the U.S. Coast Guard and the executive director of the Marine Exchange of Alaska, said the committee could give structure to the ad-hoc meetings around maritime shipping and safety that currently take place.

A more “structured” committee charged with studying these issues would have “a better chance of actually getting some traction and doing something,” he said. “Get the right cross-section of people in there and I think it stands a better chance of getting it right.”

Travel logistics and costs are one major challenge to giving key participants — especially those in Indigenous communities — a seat at the table, Page said. Creating a committee that would help with logistics and costs could remove a major barrier to full participation from a variety of people.

One of the policies the committee would review is the possibility of a “fee-for-service model,” sometimes referred to as “Uber for icebreakers,” in Arctic waterways. Earlier this year, Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced two bills to further the United States’ presence in the Arctic: the Arctic Policy Act and the Shipping and Environmental Arctic Leadership Act, which would create an Arctic seaway fee-for-service program.

The bill also calls for the appointment of a Special Representative for the Arctic Region to coordinate international cooperation with members and observers of the Arctic Council. The previous Arctic representative position was created in 2014 and eliminated in 2017.

Another part of the committee’s work would be responding to maritime incidents, improving maritime safety and protecting the environment.

In a statement, the three Republican senators highlighted rapid changes in the Arctic and an accompanying rise in maritime activity.

“As we see increased activity in the Arctic, we must be proactive in developing a strategic plan to support safe maritime transportation in the region,” said Sen. Murkowski. Sen. Sullivan said that the United States is “in the midst of a national awakening regarding the importance of the Arctic,” and bills like these will help strengthen American presence in the region.

“The United States has a vital interest in the safety and security of the Arctic region – especially as a corridor for commerce and trade,” Sen. Wicker added. His home state, Mississippi, is also home to VT Halter, the shipbuilder awarded the contract for the new U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker in April.

Shipping in the Arctic, Page said, can be complex and divisive issue. “A lot of people have different perspectives on it,” he said. But he believes Arctic shipping will continue to grow — and it will bring safety and regulatory issues along with it.

“Let’s manage whatever this new challenge is,” he said. “Let’s close the barn door before the horses get out.”

Page worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill response when he was in the Coast Guard, and he saw the “tremendous effort” it takes to try to contain even part of the damage caused by such a spill.

“We’re not in extremis right now,” Page said. “But this is the time to do this stuff, not after the accident. Before things go wrong.”