March 5, 2015 – Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, DC
Sen. Lisa Murkowski held the first full Senate committee hearing about the Arctic on March 5, 2015. This hearing focused on scientific, economic, environmental, national security opportunities for the U.S. in the Arctic. Testimony and opening statements largely echoed the discussion from the Consortium of Ocean Leadership the previous day. The opening statements of Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member, along with witness testimony, can be found at www.energy.senate.gov.
The witness panel members were:
- Admiral Robert Papp, Jr., Special Representative for the Arctic, U.S. Department of State
- The Honorable Lesil McGuire, Alaska State Senator, Anchorage
- The Honorable Bob Herron, Alaska State Representative, Bethel
- The Honorable Charlotte Brower, Mayor, North Slope Borough, Alaska
- Cecilia Bitz, College, School of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington
- Patrick Arnold, Director of Operations and Business Development, Maine Port Authority
The U.S. Ambassador to Iceland, Robert Barber, also attended, but didn’t testify.
In her opening statement, Sen. Murkowski largely repeated the main points from earlier speech at the Consortium of Ocean Leadership, primarily the parts about expanding U.S. icebreaker capabilities, supporting the Coast Guard, expanding public diplomacy so more Americans are aware they live in an Arctic nation, and explaining how the U.S.—outside of Alaska—is impacted.
Ranking Member Sen. Cantwell agreed on the need to expand the polar icebreaker fleet, especially for oil spill response, and echoed concerns about China and Russia ramping up their Arctic activities.
- Tensions with Russia
- ADM Papp echoed the dichotomous relationship with Russia given its aggression in Ukraine, while working with Russia on Arctic interests.
- ADM Papp traveled recently to Moscow to keep the lines of communication open with his Russian counterparts.
- Scientific Research
- Bitz stressed weather prediction and ice melting in the Arctic, which translates into better forecasts at lower latitudes, optimized shipping routes, and preparation for damaging waves that strike coastal communities.
- Murkowski suggested the private sector could collaborate with the government to map the sea floor.
- Oil and Gas Development
- Mayor Brower supported sustained oil and gas development as the “economic lifeblood” for Alaska Natives whose roads, utilities, homes and subsistence lifestyles are supported by that development.
- Property taxes on oil and gas infrastructure in the North Slope Borough account for 97% of the borough’s revenue, but “our economic realities are changing” as oil and gas production shrinks on the North Slope.
- Trans-Alaska Pipeline is at one-third capacity of what it used to be. The cost of building and maintaining vital infrastructure in the Arctic is overwhelming state and local government resources.
- Prudhoe Bay oil has allowed Inupiat people to move out of sod houses and to warm their homes with natural gas instead of whale oil.
- Murkowski suggested offshore drilling as a way to pay for the relocation of communities.
- Law of the Sea
- Angus King (I-ME) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) focused on the nation’s absence from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
- While other nations with Arctic Coast access have signed UNCLOS, the U.S. Senate has not approved it because of concerns about U.S. sovereignty.
- ADM Papp agreed that signing UNCLOS would “fully secure U.S. rights to the continental shelf off the coast of Alaska, which is likely to extend out to more than 600 nautical miles.”
- King noted that Russia is extending its claims of oil and gas development while the U.S. cannot submit claims to expand gas/oil rights on the outer continental shelf without joining UNCLOS.
- Cantwell also expressed support for UNCLOS.
- Climate Change
- Al Franken (D-MN) said, “Burning fossil fuels is creating more opportunity to find more fossil fuels to burn.” Dr. Bitz concurred that this is “ironic.”
- Murkowski said, “Economic development and opportunities for the people who live and raise their families there is not inconsistent with being environmental stewards.”
- Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted the highest point in the village of Newtok could be underwater by 2017, and 86% of all Alaska native villages are at risk. “You are in favor of more production of fossil fuel, which is ultimately destroying the very communities your people live in, which does not make a lot of sense to me.”
- Alaska Sen. McGuire responded until alternative energy has more resources behind it, the U.S. needs to take advantage of all of the resources around it, including oil/gas, and make sure Alaskans can reap the benefits and improve the lives of people most vulnerable to climate change.
- Hirono (D-HI) asked Mayor Brower if she speaks for all Alaska Native groups.
- Mayor Brower responded that she does not speak for all diverse Alaska Natives, but she was entrusted with their concerns at this hearing because “Alaska Natives have to stick together.”