Alaska’s Arctic Would Receive Major Boost in Coast Guard Bill
Alaska’s presence in the Arctic and the future of U.S. Arctic strategy will be strengthened when the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act clears its final Congressional hurdle and becomes law in the next few days.
Sen. Mark Begich, who co-authored the Senate version of the bill, said the bill, which has already passed the House and is now awaiting final Senate passage, will be a major development for U.S. Arctic strategy.
“My colleagues are becoming increasingly aware that the United States must compete with other nations in the Arctic in order to remain competitive in our global economy,” Begich said. “This landmark Coast Guard bill includes infrastructure and funding in Alaska to ensure we don’t fall any farther behind.”
For example, the bill requires the Coast Guard to halt the scrapping of one of two heavy icebreaking ships, the Polar Sea. Now the Coast Guard will have to keep the Polar Sea until it assesses whether it is cost effective to make needed engine repairs to the ship. Currently idled in Seattle, the icebreaker provides access to ports like Nome, which last year received emergency shipments of fuel from Russia that wouldn’t have been possible without the Coast Guard icebreakers.
The bill also requires the Coast Guard to study the feasibility and potential of establishing a deep-water port in the Arctic and to conduct an analysis of projected needs for continuing operations in Arctic and Antarctic regions including shore infrastructure, communications and other logistical needs.
Other major Alaska provisions include an extension of the waiver for incidental vessel discharges from Alaska’s fishing fleet and other vessels under 79 feet. The bill extends the Environmental Protection Agency waiver through 2014.
“I am continuing to work on a permanent waiver for these vessels, but for now we have more time to reason with some of my colleagues from California who don’t understand the unique challenges of operating in Alaska,” Begich said.
Another provision particularly important to residents of Kodiak and Unalaska/Dutch Harbor is a requirement that the Department of Homeland Security change its enrollment process for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), which is required for anyone needing routine access to a port. Previously mariners were required to travel and pay for lodging twice to receive the cards; the bill streamlines the process so that only one trip is now needed.
The final bill authorizes the Coast Guard’s annual operation and maintenance funding at $6.9 billion, plus $1.5 billion for acquisition and construction of new vessels, aircraft, and shore facilities. This represents a $170 million increase over FY12. The bill also sets active-duty personnel levels for the service at 47,000 and makes a number of improvements, clarifications and refinements to the Coast Guard’s statutory authority.
Other important components of the bill include:
- Requiring the Coast Guard to consult with other federal, state and local entities to determine what improvements are necessary to make the ice-free harbor at St. George, Alaska a fully functional harbor throughout the year.
- Adjusting research funding levels for the Cordova-based Oil Spill Recovery Institute for inflation.
- Authorizing the Coast Guard to enter into cost-saving multi-year contracts for construction of its new National Security Cutters.
In addition to the Coast Guard provisions, the bill reauthorizes the Maritime Administration and calls for a report on the training needs of the maritime workforce. It reauthorizes the Marine Debris Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and includes language to address “severe marine debris events” such as debris from a hurricane or tsunami. The bill also includes legislation to better protect marine shipping from piracy on the high seas.
The bill is currently awaiting final Senate approval, which is expected this week. Begich praised the work of Alaska Congressman Don Young, a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who helped shepherd the legislation through the House and fought for many Alaska provisions.
Begich chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard and wrote the Senate version of the bill with colleagues Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.