Arctic Commission delivers first report to Legislature

Sen. Lesil McGuire said she wants 2014 to be the “year of the Arctic” across Alaska during a meeting with other legislators Feb. 4.

McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, are co-chairs of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, which released its preliminary report to the Legislature Jan. 30 following nearly a year of work.

“We are, have been and are going to play a key role in Arctic policy as the Arctic is our future,” Herron said to the joint House Economic Development, Trade and Tourism and Senate World Trade committees.

The 26-member commission comprised of 10 legislators, federal officials and industry stakeholders was formed out of the Northern Waters Task Force last March.

White House officials also released their “Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region” Jan. 30. The administration’s report follows the May 2013 release of an Arctic strategy report that Arctic Policy Commission members have criticized for not including more about economic development and potential community benefits in the region.

“Every paragraph” of a comparable Canadian report references Arctic residents and their role in the country’s regional goals, McGuire said, while a draft of the May 2013 White House report focused mainly on security concerns and national interests.

The guidelines to the latest federal plan call for an Arctic strategy that can “advance United States Security interests, pursue responsible Arctic region stewardship and strengthen international cooperation.”

The 130-page preliminary state report contains a vision statement with four points. Those are that “the State of Alaska envisions an Arctic that: values community sustainability and thriving cultures; advances economic development and a healthy environment; ensures public safety and security; (and) incorporates transparency and inclusion into decision making.”

It also contains 16 policy recommendations that emphasize striking a balance between resource development and wildlife and fisheries management. Additionally, the commission calls for new ways of dealing with a changing Arctic climate, strengthening relationships with Canada and Russia, and increasing maritime and emergency response infrastructure in the region.

Specifically to resource development, the report requests the creation of a revenue-sharing mechanism for communities impacted by resource development — “perpetual trust funds (where lacking) to finance community needs beyond the life of non-renewable resources” are suggested.

McGuire said Alaska can “arrive on time” to the Arctic discussion and influence federal policy by making its objectives heard by the federal government.

A final report from the Arctic Policy Commission is due Jan. 30 2015, after the Legislature and other leaders across the state review the current draft. The final report will be key as the U.S. takes the chair position for two years at the eight-member international Arctic Council next year, McGuire predicted.

To that end, federal officials are going to hold public meetings across the state in the coming year to hear what Alaskans think the country should do as the Arctic Council chair, Herron said. He encouraged legislators to attend the listening sessions in their respective jurisdictions in a further attempt to have the state’s interests heard.

In terms of policy, the Arctic Alaska is demarcated as the area north and west of a line roughly following the paths of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers across the state and south to include Bristol Bay and the Aleutian Islands, according to the state report.

The Bering Sea is included because the Bering Strait is likely to be a major travel corridor for ships traveling the Northern Sea Route if Arctic sea ice recedes as projected in the coming years, Herron said.

McGuire and Herron are working on an Arctic legislation package to help prepare the state for investment in the region, the pair said in a Jan. 16 release. Last session Herron introduced House Bill 165 that would establish an Arctic Port Authority and McGuire is drafting a bill to establish a state fund that could serve as a financing mechanism for future infrastructure development.

A piece of infrastructure that is already in the works is a deepwater port somewhere on the Seward Peninsula. The design stage of the project is being led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has selected Nome and Point Spencer, or a combination, as most suitable to hold a deep-water port. Cape Riley, northwest of Nome, is also being investigated as an option for additional shallow-draft infrastructure, Corps of Engineers project manager Lorraine Cordova told the Joint Transportation Committee Jan. 30.

Cordova said the intent was to have the project narrowed down to a single preferred alternative by March. That isn’t likely to happen, she said, as Corps of Engineers leadership has asked for investigation into 23 possible combinations of development involving all three sites.

That could push the timeline for a completed plan ready to be taken to Congress for funding back from an original goal of early 2015, Cordova said.

A port in the region capable of holding large vessels would serve as a base of operations for vessels supporting Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas exploration and freight vessels traversing the Arctic sea routes.

Major infrastructure such as dredging and dock and causeway extensions would be 65 percent funded by the federal government with state and local matches, she said. Local service features would receive no direct federal money.

When asked what her best guess was as to when the project would be completed, Cordova said “the stars would really have to align for 2020 to occur,” and 2030 would be a more likely timeline.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/15/2016 - 4:05pm