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Vol. 17, No. 7 Week of February 12, 2012
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Task force proposals would deal with changes in Arctic waters

Hard on the heels of its preliminary report, released on Jan. 20, the Alaska Northern Waters Task Force has now published its full report, setting out the Task Force’s findings. Established by the Alaska Legislature in 2010 to seek opportunities to bolster the state’s approach to the challenges and opportunities posed by a warming Arctic climate and receding Arctic sea ice, the task force has recommended a series of state and federal Arctic policies.

“Climate change and all that it means in the Arctic has captured the attention of many, many people around the world,” said Task Force Chair Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, during a press conference following the Jan. 30 release of the final report. “It’s full of opportunity, full of changes. Alaska, because of our position as an Arctic state, allows the United States of America to have a seat at that (Arctic) table.”

Law of the sea

Among the outcomes of the Task Force’s work comes a resolution requesting the U.S. Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the international law governing the specification of national maritime boundaries and the rules for international maritime operations.

“We’ve done our part. Now hopefully in a moment of clarity the U.S. Senate can ratify the treaty,” Joule said, commenting that the Alaska Legislature had already forwarded the Task Force’s resolution to Congress.

Another resolution urges Congress to fund the facilities and the vessels that the U.S. Coast Guard needs for its Arctic mission, including a northern Coast Guard base and new icebreakers.

“We’ve got advance bases into the South Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, but there’s nothing in the Arctic,” said Task Force Vice Chairman Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.

One issue, for example, is the difficulty of operating Coast Guard helicopters in the Arctic, when the nearest helicopter base is on the island of Kodiak in southern Alaska, Stedman said. In the northern part of the state it may not be possible to shut down a helicopter in the winter because the weather is too cold, he said.

Arctic commission

Another top priority item in the Task Force report is a resolution requesting the formation of an Alaska Arctic Commission, to enable the state to more effectively respond to the changing situation in the north, ensuring that the interests of the state and its people are protected as developments occur.

Task Force member Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, said the report signals Alaska’s intent to fully engage in deliberations over the future of the Arctic. In particular, with Canada scheduled to take over the chair of the Arctic Council soon and the United States taking the chair after Canada, Alaska has a particular opportunity to make its voice heard, he said. The Arctic Council consists of a forum of ministers from the Arctic nations.

“It is necessary that Alaska takes the lead in its own future,” Herron said. “We’re going to be part of this dialogue and we look forward to it.”

In addition to several state legislators, the Task Force included mayors of several Alaska coastal communities, executives of Alaska Native regional corporations and a federal liaison from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Task Force member Larry Hartig, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said that one of the more valuable aspects of the Task Force’s activities was way in which those activities engendered communications with many different Arctic stakeholders, in locations ranging from Alaska communities to Washington, D.C.

“There’s a number of issues and opportunities relating to the Arctic and they cut across all sorts of different jurisdictions — state, federal agencies,” Hartig said.

Six topics

The Task Force has grouped its recommendations into six topics: Arctic governance; marine transportation; fisheries; Arctic infrastructure; Arctic research; and oil and gas development.

Governance recommendations include the need for a comprehensive U.S. Arctic strategy; the adoption of international agreements in various aspects of ocean usage; and support for greater international cooperation through the Arctic Council.

Marine transportation recommendations include participation by the United States and Alaska in finalizing the Polar Code for ships operating in the Arctic; improved Arctic marine navigational aids; and the completion of a risk assessment for the Aleutian Islands.

From the perspective of fisheries, there needs to be much more fisheries-related research and monitoring; continued negotiations over fishery accords with other nations; and strategies for maximizing the benefit to local communities from commercial fishing, the Task Force report says.

Ports and harbors

In addition to the need for heightened infrastructure support for the U.S. Coast Guard, the Task Force has recommended continued efforts to develop deep-draft Arctic ports and safe harbors. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needs additional funding for its hydrographic Arctic mapping program, especially for updated mapping of coastal navigation routes and entrance routes to coastal villages, the report says.

The State of Alaska and the federal government need to identify Arctic research priorities, to enable the targeting of research funds. The speedier exchange and better integration of research data would benefit all Arctic stakeholders. There also needs to be long-term monitoring of chemical, physical and biological parameters for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the report says.

Oil spill risks

From the perspective of offshore oil and gas development, the report says that during field hearings in Barrow, Wainwright, Kotzebue, Wales and Nome people expressed broad concerns about the likelihood of a large oil spill and the potential impacts of a spill on the fragile Arctic environment and on the subsistence lifestyle.

The State of Alaska and the federal government need to support continued improvements in ways of preventing, containing and responding to an oil spill in Arctic waters, and to share information on oil spill prevention and response, the report says. Other recommendations relating to oil spill preparedness include addressing any outstanding scientific and other issues relating to the in-situ burning of spilled oil and the use of dispersants in Arctic waters. And the state should encourage collaboration among industry and government organizations to develop better ways of tracking and mechanically recovering oil in ice and broken ice conditions. The state also needs to continue its safety and maintenance oversight program for pipelines carrying produced crude oil, the report says.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources need to continue coordinating their efforts in the oversight of well safety and oil spill response planning standards, the report says.

And the state should encourage Congress to raise the liability limits for oil spills and to raise the potential per-incident payouts from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Congress should also be encouraged to fund research into oil spills in ice conditions, the report says.

Information needs

The Task Force has recommended that the State of Alaska and the federal government develop a framework for the identification, acquisition and sharing of information needed to support government agency leasing and permitting decisions. Agencies need to identify research that would provide key data for those decisions. Agencies also need to review current efforts for obtaining baseline environmental data and for monitoring changes in ecosystems and species.

The use of local knowledge and the best science, with critical knowledge gaps identified and addressed, will be vital in the planning and permitting of oil and gas activities, the report says.

At the same time, the state should set a goal of becoming a leader in safe Arctic oil and gas exploration and development, the report says. The University of Alaska should become a center of excellence for Arctic oil spill research. Collaboration with local Alaska entities should help integrate local knowledge with science, in better understanding the risks associated with offshore oil and gas. Best practices need to be shared internationally.


Asked about a possible timeframe for implementing the Task Force’s recommendations, Joule said that although, having finished its project, the Task Force has now been disbanded, the Task Force members are trying to implement some of their resolutions during the current state legislative session. Once through the state Legislature, the resolutions would move to the U.S. Congress, he said. The proposed Alaska Arctic Commission would take on board the state’s longer term Arctic strategy, he said.

—Alan Bailey

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