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Vol. 13, No. 28 Week of July 13, 2008
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Climate change spurs Arctic shipping

Mead Treadwell and other Alaskans were among those voicing support in a U.S. Senate committee hearing for policies that support safe, secure and reliable polar transportation

Rose Ragsdale

For Petroleum News

As Congress and the White House continue to grapple with the effects of climate change, researchers are identifying the effects and developing strategies for not only mitigating them but also seizing opportunities they could present.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a top Republican on the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, outlined effects of climate change on Alaska’s infrastructure at a June 24 hearing.

“I think the problem we have to deal with is the impact of some of these changes on the individual Americans and on our states,” said Stevens. “Our state had a report that the effects of climate change stand to increase our maintenance and replacement cost for public infrastructure by $6 billion over the next 20 years. Now, we’re a small state. The impact of that on the taxpayer and on the people of our state is going to be overwhelming.”

Stevens also noted that worldwide oil demand is expected to increase to 116 million barrels a day by 2030. “We need to explore ways to ease our dependence on fossil fuels in the transportation sector, but the investments required to make this transition are enormous. This is why I continue to argue that revenues from new domestic sources of oil, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, should be devoted to climate change adaptation and alternative energy development to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Senator Stevens said in his written statement.

Researcher reports effects on Arctic transportation

Longtime Alaskan Mead Treadwell, representing the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, joined others in testifying before the Senate panel.

Under the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission has seven commissioners who are appointed by the president and report to the president and the Congress on goals and priorities for the U.S. Arctic Research Program.

Treadwell, who chairs the commission, updated the senators on preparations for increased traffic on the Arctic Ocean as global climates shift.

He said the scientific community is finding the Arctic to be suddenly, and surprisingly accessible, and the commission is finding that regular Arctic Ocean shipping, tied to specific resource development projects, tourism, or serving the needs of Arctic communities is already large and growing.

Treadwell said new Arctic-capable ships are under construction in Southeast Asia and Europe, a trend that brings with it the need for new policies — rulemaking, research, and investment — by governments of the Arctic region.

A fundamental question for residents of the Arctic, Treadwell said, is whether trans-Arctic seaways will become as important to global shipping as the Panama and Suez Canals?

“Or, will the Arctic Ocean continue more as venue for shipping in and out of the Arctic itself, for tourism, local needs, and for bringing natural resources to market?” he asked.

Treadwell said policies are being conceived, developed and implemented toward a goal of ensuring that shipping in the Arctic is safe, secure and reliable.

“The Arctic Ocean is a ‘patchwork quilt’ of tolls and regulations by several coastal nations. Arctic shipping will grow when rules are certain and when products can be delivered competitively with other routes,” he told the committee. “This means on a time and cost basis, not just on shorter distances.”

Oil spill, territorial research needed

Treadwell urged lawmakers to fund strong research into climate change issues and its implications. He said the commission has developed a set of research goals related to shipping, and those goals will be included in a report to Congress due in 2009.

Among issues to be addressed in the report are an understanding of the effects of air pollution and noise from ships on the Arctic ecosystem and the tradeoff between warming effects of ship emissions in the Arctic and potential reduced emissions from shipping worldwide, due to shorter routes.

Also, the U.S. and Iceland are cooperating on development of hydrogen technologies. “The prospect of hydrogen-powered ships, under development by Iceland, is of interest to the entire Arctic community,” Treadwell said.

The Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, acting on the commission’s recommendation, has commissioned an interagency research plan on Arctic infrastructure, in light of climate change. The plan will cover many climate effects on transportation in the Arctic, including roads, maritime transport, and the need for improved oil spill research in ice-covered waters.

Treadwell said nations are mustering bathymetric and seismic expeditions to delineate the extended continental shelf of the Arctic region, for new territorial claims allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And as claims by some nations could make parts of the Arctic Ocean legally less accessible to research, the science community is pressing to ensure greater access with the diplomatic community, he said.

Treadwell said the United States last revised its Arctic policy in 1994 with environmental protection as a primary objective.

Climate change and growth in Arctic shipping were not contemplated, he said. “As the Executive Branch currently conducts a review of U.S. Arctic policy, the commission has urged consideration of policies to ensure safe, secure, and reliable shipping,” including acceding to the Law of the Sea convention, he said.

Icebreakers important piece of puzzle

Treadwell also expressed support for current legislation calling for construction of two new Polar-class icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard and investment in maintaining the Coast Guard’s existing fleet.

“These ships are needed to provide the same protections (that) the U.S. Coast Guard affords the rest of the nation: search and rescue, law enforcement, border protection, environmental protection and oil spill response,” he said.

In addition to ice-breaking capability, shipping and research activities in the Arctic depend on a strong system to predict ice conditions, provided by federal agencies using satellites to provide accurate weather forecasts.

Treadwell also urged support for his predecessor, George Newton’s, call for an “Arctic 911” capability, and the need for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to add the Arctic region to other oceans of the world that provide notices to mariners.

Lastly, he said the question of where new port facilities, such as safe harbors and transshipping points, are needed has yet to be fully addressed.

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