FLOOR SPEECH: Unveiling Arctic Legislation to Reinvigorate America’s Arctic Role

Senator Lisa Murkowski Arctic Floor Speech

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent the privileges of the floor be granted to my military fellow Juan Ramirez for the remainder of his fellowship through June of 2019.

Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, there's been a lot of discussion this evening by my colleague from New Jersey, my colleague from Rhode Island about the issue of climate change and the impact. I come from a part of the country where climate change is there. It is with us. It is real. And it is -- it is something that we look to as Alaskans with a reality of this world view. I spend a lot of my time here in the United States Senate focused on not only the United States arctic but the arctic as a whole, the eight arctic nations that we intersect with.

I would like to take a few minutes this evening to speak about the happenings in the arctic, our new reality as we are seeing greater opportunities, but also greater challenges in an area that I find is an extraordinary place on our globe. It was about 150, maybe a little more than 150 years ago, but Massachusetts Senator and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time Charles Sumner, he argued the geo-strategic importance of Alaska to our young nation at the time. And Senator Sumner spoke about how the elusions represented this gateway to Asia. This was a maritime route to the west coast, roughly 1,000 miles shorter than the Southern Route through the Sandwich Isles that was popular at the time.

And it was about 70 years later thereafter that General Billy Mitchell who is the “Father of the Air Force”, he testified before Congress and he said, “I believe that in the future, whoever controls Alaska controls the world. I think it is the most strategic place in the world.” And then we had World War II. The Japanese who also recognized this strategic importance of the Aleutians and they briefly seized and occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska. While the war may be forgotten by many here at home, the world continues to remember the strategic significance of the north.

And although General Mitchell saw the strategic geographic location of Alaska, he could not have imagined the environmental changes that would make sea routes accessible to commerce year round. Nor could he have imagined the rich mineral wealth beneath the Arctic. Now, he might have been able to imagine that Russia would take a major interest in the arctic given its proximity. From the straits region of Alaska, one can indeed see Russia from your window, not too many people on Little Diomede but I have been there and Big Diomede sits just about two and a half miles across the water. But I doubt that General Mitchell would ever have been able to imagine that nations like China or India would take an interest in the very remote and often forbidding north. Less that they would be fielding ice breakers in 2019 and 2020 and China and India are. You might wonder why Singapore -- why Singapore would take such an interest to justify observer status on the Arctic Council.

And so while places like Singapore are seeking observer status, the United States passed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council and with it most of our diplomatic efforts towards the Arctic. The Arctic Executive Steering Committee and other institutions within the Executive Branch focused on the arctic have in my view kind of wasted away just when the rest of the world has redoubled its focus on the arctic.

But the Department of Defense is as clearly -- they're starting to recognize -- get it. They're starting to recognize what General Mitchell did. Before the subcommittee back in May 2016, I asked Secretary Carter whether we were doing what we needed to do from a defense standpoint to address changes in the arctic. And his response was pretty frank and I think very revealing. He told me -- and this is his quote, “The arctic is going to be a major area of importance to the United States strategically and economically in the future. I think it's fair to say that we are late to the recognition of that, but I think we have the recognition. And now you are asking what comes in behind that recognition. I think a plan that is more than aspirational is needed, and I would be happy to work with you toward that end.”

So at that time, Secretary Carter's candor was refreshing if not long overdue. But I have to tell you, I have to tell you we are still waiting for a plan that is more aspirational in the arctic, not just a plan but a plan that is fully resourced. And as an appropriator, I know full well how difficult that is to achieve. Sometimes around here like a tree that falls in the forest, when there's nobody there to listen, seems like official Washington doesn't recognize that something new and very real is occurring until they read it in the New York Times or perhaps the Washington Post. Well, on Thanksgiving Day this year, the Washington Post really laid it out. They had a special section, some 16 pages and its entitled "The New Arctic Frontier."

I would like to quote from the cover of this special section. It provides, “As the arctic slowly thaws, the United States, Russia, China, and other interested nations are reconsidering how they strategically approach the region. Corporations have launched new missions to search for oil. Commercial fishing continues to evolve. Shipping and luxury cruise lines alike are planning to send more vessels north. Coastal erosion has prompted questions about how some Alaskan villages will survive and how the U. S. Government should react. Against this backdrop, militaries are increasingly preparing for potential conflict in the arctic. The United States is shifting forces to the north planning to build a new class of icebreaker ships and cultivating stronger relationships with Nordic militaries. Russia meanwhile is investing in ice-capable vessels and infrastructure improvements and China has declared itself a new arctic state.”

Well, this really sums up where we are today. Truth be told, General Mitchell has been proven correct in ways that he probably could not have imagined when he said Alaska is the most strategic place in the world. For example, right now, here today Anchorage has the fifth busiest cargo airport in the world. Not in the country, but in the world. So we're sitting here in Anchorage, Alaska. We are less than nine and a half hours from 90 percent of the industrialized world. So whether you are, whether you're going to Singapore, London, Mexico City, less than nine and a half hours, again from 90 percent of the industrialized world. So many carriers like FedEx, UPS, Alaska Airlines, Atlas and others are already using Anchorage as a cargo hub because of this very, very central location and these very real opportunities for commerce.

We're also looking to regain Ted Stevens International Airport's position as a hub for international passenger travel. Now, we're getting ready for the holiday season, for Christmas. I think Santa had this figured out a long time ago. He knew that the shortest way to get around the globe whether you're going to Fiji or London or Los Angeles or Seoul, the quickest way is over the pole. Even Santa understood the geographic, the geo-strategic position of the arctic.

But it is Alaska. It really is Alaska sitting right up there which is the gateway to America's arctic that is at the center of all of this. And that's just not me bragging, me as the Alaska senator being parochial about it. It is real. It's compelling. And it's demanding of attention and action. And I know that that's not easy. The Washington Post editors observed that the arctic pole tends great opportunities -- portends great opportunities and challenges. So, let's get to work on this. That's my central message today.

It's time that we get to work and move ahead with a plan that fits the challenge that the arctic represents for America. We talk a lot about aspiration, a time for aspiration is over. It's time for action. And that starts -- that starts by fully funding the first of the Coast Guard's polar security cutters whose purpose is to provide assured year round access to our polar regions. These are platforms that can project sea power anywhere any time and are fully inner operable with interagency and international stakeholders to carry out national defense operations. These cutters will include sufficient space, weight, and power to conduct multi-mission activities that support our nation's current and future needs in the arctic. The polar security cutter will allow us to continue to continue to engage with our fellow arctic nations and our allies and our strategic competitors.

But I share with you a picture of our existing polar icebreaker, but when you look around the world, the various flags, here we are sitting in the United States, one of eight arctic nations. And we have two ice breakers. You say two. Maybe that's all we need. Well, one of them is permanently in dry dock in the Seattle-Tacoma area. She's never going to see activity again. The other one, Polar Star, she's on her second life. She is working hard, but she is down in Antarctica. And she will be in Antarctica until she, too, is retired. And then what -- where does that leave us? Where does that put us? We have a medium manufacture strength vessel, the Healy, she does great work. But that's what the United States has. Canada has nine government-owned. They're either operating or under construction. China, four. China, who is just determined, who has just determined that they should be a near-arctic state. Russia -- 34. And when you count those that are nongovernment-owned.

So here we are, the United States of America, an arctic nation, and we're down to about one icebreaker. So we've got some work to do here. Over the past several years, funds have been secured through the navy to get started in building a new polar security cutter, and this year the administration wisely decided, and I thank them for working with us, but they've decided that it's time to lock in the project by budgeting the remaining funds necessary to complete the project. It is about $750 million. That's a lot of money. That's a lot of money. But I would submit that that investment in a polar security cutter is a small price to pay for the ability to project U. S. sea power in the arctic.

And the question of whether or not we follow through on this very important step, this is going to be determined this week or perhaps next as we complete the Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations projects. So I would dare to suggest that our competitors in the arctic are watching very, very closely whether we have the resolve to follow through on the first of these polar security cutters. Bringing the polar security cutter online will bring us capacity, we appreciate that. But the next and perhaps more difficult challenge is to build the infrastructure to support the next phase of U. S. sea power in the arctic. And most critical for that is the development of deep-water port in the Bering Sea.

Our reality is, right now, the Alaska deep-water port that is nearest to the arctic is located in Dutch Harbor. Dutch Harbor is some almost 1,000 miles away from the arctic. So when you're down in the Aleutians, and I'm looking at my imaginary Alaskan map here. But when you're down in the Aleutians, it is 1,000 miles to get up to Point Hope, to Barrow (Utgiagvik) and that area. And so a port is a critical piece of infrastructure that is needed. And it will serve many, many uses. It can support the Navy, the Coast Guard, NOAA’s research mission. It will support search-and-rescue activities that May be necessitated by increasing commercial vessel traffic in the arctic, and it will provide a platform for the U. S. To harvest some of the economic upside of commercial vessel transits.

Rear Admiral John White, a recent event that was sponsored by the Wilson Center, he characterized the requirement for a deep-water port in the arctic it is a no-brainer is what he said. He went on to say, but unfortunately it's not a no-coster. Last summer Navy Secretary Spencer looked at some various sites, potential sites for a deep-water port, and he's very engaged in seeing how we can be working together to bring the funding partners to make this happen. And we look forward to working with him towards this endeavor. But his engagement is so greatly, greatly appreciative. He clearly understands the developments here. So all these developments are far more positive than we have seen in years. But they're building blocks. And the race to protect America's strategic interests in the arctic demands attention on more than just defense, and it will take coordination.

That's why I’m going to be introducing today two pieces of legislation that are designed to reinvigorate America's national and commercial strategic efforts. For well over a decade now, you've heard me talk about how the diminishing arctic sea ice presents both opportunities and concerns. So if you look at this map here, so you're looking at planet earth from the perspective that most of us in Alaska view, which is from the top on down. You've got the U. S. Arctic here with Alaska, you've got the Canadian arctic here, here's Russia coming all the way around to Iceland, Greenland, down in this area.

But, as I mentioned at the beginning of my comments here, we recognize the impact that climate change is having on the arctic, rapid impact more so than any other part, clearly, of the United States. The latest report from the U. S. Global change research program underscored this fact. Since the early 1980's, the annual average arctic sea ice extent has gone down by about 4 percent per decade. The decrease for September sea ice extent -- this is the time of year where we have the least amount of ice -- this time period has been even more pronounced at somewhere between 10. 7 percent and 15. 9 percent per decade in terms of the decrease in the sea ice. So what does all this mean? According to that report, it means we are likely to experience a sea ice-free arctic summer before this century is out. So, again, when you're looking at the top of the globe, you're looking at the arctic here, all of the area in the light blue -- you can't see the red around it -- this was all the extent of the sea ice, September sea ice, back in 1979. Now in 2015, three years ago, the extent of that September ice is just here on the pink. And so, as you appreciate that you're losing this through more parts of the year, it does -- it does points to a reality that we are like lay to see in the -- that we are likely to see in the not-too-terribly-distant future about a sea ice-free summer. Loss of ice in the arctic goes hand in hand with temperature warming. Over the last seven years it's been somewhat common to refer to the arctic and say that it's warming at twice the rate as the rest of the country. This latest climate report shows us that that's not exactly right. In fact, the North Slope of Alaska -- so this corner right there -- the North Slope warming at 2. 6 percent times the rate of the continental United States. So much of the rest of the state of Alaska is warming at more than twice the continental U. S. Rate as well. So it's not just twice as fast. It's more than twice as fast. So, again, we're paying attention.

And I face this reality, I hear about this reality every time I step off an airplane in a rural community. I listen to the people there, particularly the elders, as they share their knowledge. Record-low extensive arctic sea ice threaten many of our indigenous communities because of threats of coastal erosion. Less ice, waves build up, beat against the shore, erode it. But it's more than just the coastal erosion. It is the impact on their traditional ways of life, food security issues, hunting, access to resources to basically exist. So we are in tuned, but it's not just -- it's not just through the eyes of the people that are living there. This is abundantly clear in both the scientific data that's collected by our state and our federal agencies as well as the experience of rural Alaska natives.

According to this most recent report, the cost of infrastructure damage from a warming climate in Alaska alone -- we had our own chapter in the report -- the cost could range from $110 million to $278 million per year. So changes to our air, our water, our soil, our food security, our disease ecology directly and indirectly resulting from our warming climate are going to impact the lives and the health of every Alaskan. So, on the one hand, the future in the arctic looks increasingly challenging for our rural communities. And then, on the other hand, the future also represents a new frontier. There's opportunities out there whether they are in construction, in tourism, in energy, in minerals, in shipping, in community development. So you've got challenges, you've got opportunities.

For some time now, my team and I have been working on two pieces of arctic legislation to support responsible development in the U. S. Arctic. It hang been easy to meet the expectations and the needs of rural and indigenous communities that are most impacted by climate change in the U. S. Arctic while at the same time focusing on economic development, environmental stewardship, human security. But we've really been trying to mesh these all together.

And I believe that these two bills that I am introducing along with Senator Sullivan, the Arctic Policy Act of 2018 and the Shipping and Environmental Arctic Leadership Act of 2018 -- that's the SEAL Act. I think that they are steps in the right direction, helping us move closer to meeting these objectives so. So the first Bill will statutorily establish the arctic executive steering committee under the department of homeland security and provide the coordination necessary to advance a truly integrated plan for the arctic. By reinvigorating the central coordinating body for arctic issues, the legislation will provide a venue to deliver the type of plan America needs and, more importantly, a place to work that plan into action across agencies.

As it stands now, everybody has a little bit of a piece of something when it comes to the arctic. But it doesn't really seem that there's any coordinating entity, and when you don't have anybody that ultimately has that responsibility, often p times it's hard to see the progress. We know federal policy does not exist in a vacuum. So, in addition to establishing the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, the legislation will also establish an Arctic Advisory Committee to ensure that residents of the arctic and Alaska Native people have a seat at the table for the development of policy. They don't want to be sitting back and being told what is happening. They want at seat at the table. And as the indigenous peoples of these regions, they have fully that right.

Further, the legislation calls for the establishment of regional tribal advisory groups starting with the Bering Sea Regional Tribal Advisory group to advise the federal government as it shapes national priorities within the region. These tribal advisory groups will be empowered to provide advice on specific challenges or regionally important issues.

I like to say that you go out into rural Alaska, you go out to a small village. You're not going to find a lot of PhD's out there. But what they do have, they've got a PhD in arctic living. They know what's going on. Their very life, their survival depends on understanding and appreciating their world around us t in the arctic we've got an opportunity to show the world here how to integrate indigenous knowledge and voices into policy and science. And that's why the legislation will also update the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984. This was legislation that my father introduced when he was here in the Senate. But this will include, we will update this to include more native voices at the Arctic Research Commission and thereby push to include traditional knowledge and community coordination in our nation's scientific efforts in the arctic, especially our efforts to study and understand climate change.

The second piece of legislation that I’m introducing is a Shipping and Environmental Arctic Leadership Act of 2018, the SEAL Act, which establishes a congressionally chartered seaway development corporation in the arctic. This corporation with work with representatives from NOAA, from the State Department, from the Coast Huard and DOT, as well as representatives from the state of the Alaska business community, Alaska coastal and subsistence communities, and the Alaskan maritime labor organization to help develop an arctic shipping union whose leadership will advocate for safe, secure, and reliable arctic seaway development. And further ensure that the arctic becomes a place of international cooperation rather than competition or conflict. The capacity to get maritime and shipping services funded by means of international cooperation is not a new concept. We've seen it done. It exists with the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation in the United States. This is one example where countries which share a large maritime border, the United States and Canada, are able to develop a seaway system, one that is safe, secure, and reliable for its users. I have people stop me and say well, this is so many years off where we're going to see levels commercial activity in the arctic. There is no -- there is no real need to move on this, is there? Well, again, I would just remind you of some of the charts that you have seen. The multiyear ice that once made the arctic impassable and shielded our northernmost border year-round is diminishing again due to climate change, and because of this, shipping in and around the arctic traffic will increase.

So when you -- when you appreciate where we are with the northwest passage here, northwest passage by 2025 intermittently opened, but the pathway, you're going from the Bering Straits right off of Alaska here through Rotterdam, you are going to have an opportunity to basically be cutting through there. The Northern Sea Route falling through Russia. By 2025, they anticipate that this sea lane will be open for a full six weeks. The transpolar route going more directly over the pole by 2025 have two weeks of open shipping. So yes, shipping is going to increase. When you can figure out a quicker way to get from Asia to Europe, when you can shave off days, when you can use less fuel, you are saving money, so this is from a trade perspective, this is hugely significant. But this looming increase in commercial vessel traffic also translates to greater demand for services and processes necessary to ensure that arctic shipping can be reliable and safe for shippers who need to transport goods from one place to another on a timetable.

This last chart that I’m going to share is just a reminder of not today's reality. This is the number of vessels that were tracked between year 2014 and 2015. So this is the Aleutians right down here. This is where the great circle route ships come through. It's so black here, you can't even tell that these are lines, but this demonstrates the level of existing traffic that we have here. But even three years ago, the number of vessels that transited up to, to the arctic, whether it was to go over into the Beaufort or the Chukchi or that direction, this is here, this is now, this is what's happening in the arctic. So what we're seeking to do with this seal legislation is to help fund a system of arctic ports. Not just one port but a system of arctic ports, ports of refuge for ships in trouble and ports to send, receive, and transship goods and people, private aids to navigation, all-weather tugs that can help ships that May have lost power or steerage and to provide a commercial architecture to support the private sector investments in and use of icebreakers that can help ships that May be boxed in because of the ice. That happens.

So as we talk about this proposal that we are laying down in this legislation, I have likened it to Uber for icebreakers. It helps people kind of understand what it is that we're looking at here. Port infrastructure will also benefit rural arctic communities and bring down costs for delivering fuel, groceries, and other necessities, which in my state at this time are just extraordinarily high. I think that this legislation can help the United States organize and attract investment opportunities for ports and icebreakers for our own safety and that of commercial vessels that are venturing into the arctic, as well, again, as for those who live there. So these two bills, building on the strategic efforts of the department of defense and the strides that have been made in the NDAA can provide the legislative direction needed to help develop that aspirational plan that Secretary Carter recognized that we need.

 And while I will be introducing these now, I'm also going to be reintroducing them in the next Congress, and I would certainly look forward to working with any and all of my colleagues, interested parties, as well as the executive branch to refine them in the hopes that we can truly, truly reclaim America's leadership role in the arctic in this next Congress. With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor. And I suggest the absence of a quorum.

Related Issues: Arctic