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Murkowski: hard to get Washington interested in Arctic issues

Carey Restino | Bristol Bay Times
As the Arctic continues to expand and draw international attention, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is hopeful her fellow lawmakers will become more aware of the opportunities that lie in the north and also the need for more safety precautions, from adequate safe harbors to a way to track vessel activity off Alaska’s coastline. Loren Holmes photo

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski knows she lives in an Arctic nation. Convincing some of her colleagues in Washington of that is another story, she said.

While some in the state may disagree with her politics on national issues, few can say Murkowski ignores the state’s northern issues. Almost weekly, a release comes out of her office touting her calls for more U.S. Coast Guard resources, funding for studies of infrastructure needs, and her thoughts from her latest trip to the Arctic Council.

“We in Alaska recognize we are an Arctic nation,” Murkowski said in an interview last week. “But it’s tough to get that recognition from some of our colleagues in other states. The senators from Iowa don’t necessarily think that they are in an Arctic nation, but they are by virtue of the state of Alaska.”

Murkowski said the disconnect between the interest of the United States in investing in the Arctic compared to other nations was made all the more clear at the Arctic Council meeting last month in Sweden. While other nations with no Arctic coastline but plenty of interest jockeyed for a place as observers to the council action, the United States was only just putting forth a policy for future investment in the region.

Murkowski said it was only with a great deal of pressure from her office that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the Arctic Council in 2011. This year, even before now Secretary of State John Kerry was appointed, Murkowski said she was dogging him to attend the council. Both Clinton and Kerry represented the United States admirably, Murkowski said, but getting policy moving that will respond to the opportunities and needs of the Arctic is more challenging.

“It is an issue that is perplexing when you recognize the enormous resource potential in the Arctic,” Murkowski said of the slow response by the nation’s elected officials to move forward in the Arctic. “They estimate 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas deposits are there. Then you throw in the mineral resources that are up there, and most view that as an opportunity.”

Then there are the expanding opportunities for shipping that exist through the Arctic as sea ice shrinks.

“If you are moving grain or you are moving LNG or you are moving canned tomatoes, the reality is you save money if you can save fuel and if you can save the numbers of days at sea, and that’s what an opening Arctic provides us from a shipping perspective,” she said.

Nations like China pushed hard at the last Arctic Council meeting to be observers, and six were given a seat at the table. While resource development may be on their mind, so also is the opportunity to reduce shipping costs, Murkowski guessed.

“If they can save weeks from their shipping, they are money ahead in a significant way,” she said. “Why has the United States not engaged more fully on this? I have a difficult time providing any justification for the failure to engage. I think some just don’t view us as an Arctic nation because in Alaska we’re sort of out of sight out of mind, but you would think that they would look at that and say, ‘Oh, wait a minute. There’s an opportunity for me in Iowa to move my corn (more cheaply).’ It is an issue we continue to struggle with. We are making some headway, but in my view, we are well behind the curve when it comes to recognizing this is an opportunity.”

International collaboration likely to lead to better regulation

Murkowski was recently quoted as asking federal regulators to be efficient in their handling of new safety standards for future drilling operations in the Arctic after Shell’s disastrous 2012 season. But when asked if speed was her only criteria for how regulations are created, Murkowski said that was not a primary focus. Efficiency, yes, but her focus, she said, was finding a balance between accessing a resource and concern and care for the environment.

Part of that balance may come from collaborative agreements reached with other Arctic nations, many of which are already involved in drilling operations with regulations in place. Hopefully, Murkowski said, what will come out of the Arctic Council’s oil spill prevention agreement entered into in Sweden will be protocols that make sense as regulations for the such activity in the Arctic.

“There is that collaboration which I think is unusual with how the council works,” she said. “We’ve got a process where each nation is working cooperatively with the other nations with the common goal of making sure that there are no spills and that there is a level of safety as our oil and gas resources are accessed.”

While not an international law, the sharing of best practices among Arctic nations allows for a level of cooperation and sharing that is extraordinary and useful, she said.

More work to be done

While Murkowski said the collaboration and safety agreements are admirable, the United States has a long way to go. With hundreds of ships of all nationalities passing by Alaska and more expected each year as Arctic waters open up, the opportunity for some sort of disaster on a larger scale than the grounding of Shell’s oil rig last winter exist. Murkowski and other Alaska leaders have been pushing for years for more Coast Guard resources for Arctic waters, especially icebreakers to add to the Coast Guard’s diminutive fleet.

Now Murkowski is also asking for a National Security Cutter to be homeported in Alaska. While such security vessels have been assigned to northern waters in past years, they are based in California, a 24-day transit from Alaska waters.

“If these vessels are suited for northern environments and if they can help us address some of the gaps we are currently facing then I want one that is closer than 24 days away,” she said.

The Arctic also needs a port, which is not news to anyone in Nome, Kotzebue or Barrow, three communities that have been eyeing a port as an opportunity to expand their income base as well as possibly access cheaper fuel for the region. But shrinking budgets and limited discretionary funds will make new projects difficult to fund, Murkowski said. More likely is that infrastructure such as ports will be a partnership between a variety of local, state and federal agencies and corporations as well as private industry.

As the Arctic continues to expand and draw international attention, Murkowski said she is hopeful her fellow lawmakers will become more aware of the opportunities that lie in the north and also the need for more safety precautions, from adequate safe harbors to a way to track vessel activity off Alaska’s coastline.

“There is absolutely more that we must do,” she said. “The Alaska delegation recognizes that. It’s a matter of how do we get that level of cooperation here in congress.”

This story first appeared in the Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman. Carey Restino can be reached at crestino@reportalaska.com