Arctic Commitment Act introduced in Senate seeks to raise U.S. profile at top of world

The bill, sponsored by Lisa Murkowski and Angus King, is pushing for analysis and investment in Arctic shipping, commerce and science

By: - August 10, 2022 3:42 pm
Sand-filled Super Sacks, seen on Aug. 4, are piled along the eroding coastal bluff in the core area of Utqiagvik, the nation's northernmost community. Near the horizon is a barge delivering some of the supplies that the community will need over the coming year. Climate change, through increased wave action from the ocean and permafrost thaw on the coast, is causing serious erosion and flooding threats. At the same time, reductions in sea ice have enabled an increase in Arctic ship traffic that is expected to continue. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Sand-filled Super Sacks, seen on Aug. 4, are piled along the eroding coastal bluff in the core area of Utqiagvik, the nation’s northernmost community. Near the horizon is a barge delivering some of the supplies that the community will need over the coming year. Climate change, through increased wave action from the ocean and permafrost thaw on the coast, is causing serious erosion and flooding problems. At the same time, reductions in sea ice have enabled an increase in Arctic ship traffic that is expected to continue. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A wide-ranging bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Angus King seeks to boost U.S. investment in Arctic commerce, science and defense.

The Arctic Commitment Act, introduced last week, focuses on ways that the United States can become a bigger player in Arctic marine shipping and commerce, which is increasing as sea ice diminishes.

The bill puts a lot of emphasis on port development and potential full-year staffing by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy in Arctic and near-Arctic communities like Nome, Unalaska, the former Coast Guard station at Port Clarence, the Pribilof Islands and elsewhere – including some sites in King’s home state of Maine. Under the bill, the Coast Guard and Navy would complete reports on the feasibility of a “persistent, year-round presence” at those sites.

A memorial to aviator Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers, who died in a 1935 plane crash at Point Barrow north of town, shows Utqiagvik's distance from cities and towns to the south. The monument, seen on Aug. 2, is a well-known feature in the nation's northernmost community. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
A memorial to aviator Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers, who died in a 1935 plane crash at Point Barrow north of town, shows Utqiagvik’s distance from cities and towns to the south. The monument, seen on Aug. 2, is a well-known feature in the nation’s northernmost community. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The bill also emphasizes the national security threat from Russia, currently a dominant force in Arctic marine activities. The bill would require a report on the situation, that “analyzes the effect of such control and influence” exerted by Russia and “a plan for eliminating the Russian monopoly on shipping in the Arctic region” and ways to boost U.S. presence in the Arctic shipping domain.

The bill includes several science and research provisions. It updates the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984, a bill sponsored by Murkowski’s father, Frank Murkowski, who preceded her in the Senate. An important update is new wording emphasizing the importance of climate change; the Arctic is warming at four times the global rate, according to a recent analysis.

And it includes several economic development provisions, such as boosted financing for projects around the Arctic, including those pursued by Indigenous organizations, and the start of negotiations on a free-trade agreement with Iceland. There is special emphasis on encouraging development of critical minerals.

The bill does not include any appropriations; rather, it authorizes a wide range of actions by federal agencies.

Boats equipped with offshore-mining gear move around the small boat harbor in Nome on Sept. 3, 2021. There are ambitions to expand the port much farther into Norton Sound so that it can accomodate increased vessel traffic to and from the Arctic. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Boats equipped with offshore-mining gear move around the small boat harbor in Nome on Sept. 3, 2021. There are ambitions to expand the port much farther into Norton Sound so that it can accomodate increased vessel traffic to and from the Arctic. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Murkowski and King are founders of a Senate Arctic caucus, which they established in 2015. It now has 10 members.

At the close of a conference held last week in Utqiagvik, one local leader said he hopes the bill will produce some concrete steps by federal officials to benefit communities.

When it comes to the U.S. Arctic, “they always talk about it,” said Nagruk Harcharek, a vice president with the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp. “There’s a lot of talking and not a lot of action.”

Action does not have to be sweeping but “could start with little projects that benefit the community,” he said. One such project could be a small-boat harbor for a community that does not yet have one, Harcharek said.

Randy “Church” Kee, head of the new Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies in Anchorage, said he worries that the bill might be too wide-ranging to rally the needed support in Congress.

“The bigger, the broader the bill, it’s just a tougher sell,” Kee said.

There are some aspects that he particularly likes. Those include the emphasis on port development – both at Nome, where $250 million in federal infrastructure money is headed to a huge project to expand the existing port, and at Port Clarence, an undeveloped deepwater site to the northwest of Nome that once held a Coast Guard radar station and has traditionally been used as a place of refuge for ships. Port Clarence, if developed, would augment the Port of Nome, Kee said.

A cargo ship and tug pass by the entrance to the Port of Nome on Sept. 29, 2020. Planned port expansion, which got a $250 million allocation through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, would extend and rearrange the causeway on the right and the breakwater on the left to create a much larger protected area that could accomodate deeper-draft vessels traveling in and out of the Arctic. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
A cargo ship and tug pass by the entrance to the Port of Nome on Sept. 29, 2020. Planned port expansion, which got a $250 million allocation through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, would extend and rearrange the causeway on the right and the breakwater on the left to create a much larger protected area that could accomodate deeper-draft vessels traveling in and out of the Arctic. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“The challenge that the Port of Nome has is just shallow water,” he said.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about development at the Port of Nome and Port Clarence or increased military presence in Alaska’s Arctic.

Kawarek Inc., a Bering Strait regional Native nonprofit, has not taken an official position for or against the Nome port expansion, but it has raised a list of concerns about environmental and cultural impacts. Those have been presented to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is designing the project in partnership with the city of Nome.

Beyond port development and military presence, there are additional ideas for boosting the U.S. presence and projecting U.S. strength in the Arctic.

Scientists attending last week’s conference held in Utqiagvik, which marked the 75th anniversary of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory established in the nation’s northernmost community in the 1940s, had their own suggestions for policy changes that will advance understanding of the Arctic and climate change’s effects on it.

One idea was to broaden the concept of “national security” to include food security, which is under threat as a rapidly changing climate disrupts habitats where Indigenous people harvest fish, game and wild plants. Also recommended were several ways to improve communication between scientists studying different topics and between the academic scientific community and the Indigenous residents, who have their own scientific knowledge. That could include simple measures like improved internet connections, expanded housing and the availability of more meeting places and in-person events where outside scientists and community members could make connections and learn from each other.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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