Bill would give Alaskans an advisory role in Arctic shipping

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St-Laurent ties up to U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in September 2009. Patrick Kelley / USCG

For ship travel, the Arctic is a new frontier, with an ocean of possibilities and few rules. A bill advancing in the U.S. Senate aims to allow new maritime opportunities while designing a framework that ensures safety.

“It’s not very often that you are able to really start with a blank sheet, and in this case, even though we’re seeing stepped up volume of traffic, it’s still a pretty blank sheet up there,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the bill’s sponsor. “So let’s make sure that we’re doing this right.”

Her bill is called the “Arctic Shipping Federal Advisory Committee Act.” It establishes a 15-member committee to advise Congress and the Transportation secretary.

Murkowski says the committee will give Alaskans and coastal residents a voice as the sea ice recedes and traffic increases. Whalers, walrus hunters and fishermen are already crossing paths with more commercial ships, the senator says.

“If we don’t have levels of engagement and communication by those who live there, with those who are passing through there, that’s not a good set up here,” Murkowski said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, a co-sponsor, said the bill will help engage the federal government in Arctic transportation needs.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the Arctic as the new Suez Canal, and he has every intention of controlling these vital transit routes,” Sullivan said in a written statement. “As sea ice recedes further and shipping lanes open, America must strongly assert its sovereignty and step up to hostile nations that seek to undermine our economic and national security interests in the region.”

The governors of Alaska and Washington can each nominate one member to the committee. One seat is reserved for an Alaska tribal member. There is also a seat to represent subsistence users and one for coastal communities.

The bill cleared the Commerce Committee Wednesday. Its next stop is the Senate floor.