Opening remarks, as prepared, of Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-MO) and Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Ranking Member Bob Gibbs (R-OH) from today’s hearing entitled, “U.S. Coast Guard’s Leadership on Artic Safety, Security, and Environmental Responsibility”:
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-MO):
I know this is an Arctic hearing, but I want to thank Vice Admiral Gautier for your work and remind you of the importance of getting the Barber’s Point facilities fully ready for the next generation of Coast Guard aircraft. I look forward to working with the Coast Guard to complete the needed upgrades at that Air Station.
Historically, Arctic shipping routes were only available for up to three months in the summer along the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage. Changing conditions in the Arctic have made maritime transportation in the region more feasible. However, there are still significant challenges associated with increasing vessel traffic in the U.S. Arctic and the Arctic Ocean as a whole.
Sadly, the U.S. is woefully unprepared for this increased vessel traffic. I look forward to hearing from the witnesses today on the potential for increased Artic maritime transportation and how to manage that growth effectively.
Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Ranking Member Bob Gibbs (R-OH):
Today the Subcommittee will hear testimony on the need for increased United States infrastructure to facilitate safe and efficient maritime transportation in the Arctic. For the first time in recorded history, more portions of the Arctic each year are becoming navigable. Vessel transits through the area covered by the Polar Code shipping increased 25% between 2013 and 2019 and are expected to continue.
It is critical that we understand current traffic flows and the steps that need to be taken to ensure that both vessels and mariners, and the environment, are properly protected. One way to ensure better Arctic access is to increase the U.S. icebreaker presence in the U.S. Arctic.
The Coast Guard has contracted to acquire a new class of Polar Security Cutter, the first heavy icebreakers built in the U.S. since 1977. Though a good first step toward more fully implementing an active U.S. presence in the Arctic, the PSCs are officially one year, and unofficially two years, behind their original construction timeline.
The vessels will fall at least one more year behind that stated timeline, which was never realistic. In addition, the first PSC will conduct the Antarctic break out, and will not be available for work in the Arctic. In other words, we are nearly a decade away from increased U.S. icebreaker presence in the Arctic.
I look forward to the Coast Guard providing us a realistic timeline for when we can expect to see additional icebreaking capacity in the Arctic, and what interim capacity measures the Coast Guard plans until then. However, while icebreakers provide important capabilities, there are many other issues that must be addressed to ensure safe and efficient Arctic navigation.
Additional infrastructure and operational challenges to maritime transportation in the U.S. Arctic include limited satellite coverage and architecture to support voice and data communications; the lack of a deep-draft port; unpredictability in flow patterns of icebergs in shipping lanes; the lack of channel marking buoys and other floating visual aids, which are not possible due to continuously moving ice sheets; and scant hydrographic surveying and other data needed for safe navigation and resource protection and management.
The United States is not alone in our efforts to facilitate safe commerce in the Arctic. We are part of the Arctic Council, along with other Arctic nations like Canada, Russia, and the Nordic countries. However, the Council’s activities have been in abeyance since Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Russia holds the Council’s chairmanship in 2022 and 2023, and it is not clear what the Council’s future is after that.
Working together in a consensus based, intergovernmental forum allowed Arctic nations to promote environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainable development in the Arctic. The Council was also critical to successfully implementing the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters – the Polar Code. If the Council cannot be revived, we need to find other mechanisms to ensure international cooperation on these issues.
This Arctic really is the last frontier — the portion of our nation’s waters about which we still have much to learn. However, unless we can get U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies assets into the area – an expensive and time-consuming challenge – we will not be able to use these areas strategically.
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