Exploration Leads Arctic Infrastructure

September 23, 2015 in Blog

In the wake of President Obama’s visit to Alaska, many newspapers and think tanks have written articles covering America’s Arctic potential, as well as our current lack of infrastructure in the region and the associated threats to national security.

Even though Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has long championed the need for more icebreakers in the Arctic, her pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears – until now, as oil and gas operators, increasingly active in the region, are bringing equipment, capabilities, and jobs with them to the Far North. By doing so, they are helping build the infrastructure needed for a bright economic future for Alaska. As Senator Murkowski noted:

“You can’t look at it from a sector-specific or single-issue focus. And whether it’s research activities, economic development, investment in infrastructure, environment stewardship, it’s all interconnected.”

Infrastructure Needs

If the United States intends to take advantage of its Arctic potential, be it natural resource extraction, shipping, or tourism, policymakers will need to allocate funds to improve infrastructure and transportation systems. For example, the United States’ current operational polar icebreaking fleet consists of only one heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, and one medium polar icebreaker the Healy. Our minuscule fleet, especially when compared to other Arctic nations – for example, Russia currently has 40, including six heavy, nuclear-powered icebreakers – compromises the ability of the Coast Guard to operate in the Arctic.

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), polar icebreakers are needed to support scientific research missions, defend U.S. sovereignty and economic resources, monitor sea traffic, and conduct search-and-rescue and law enforcement missions in Arctic waters. Because icebreakers are necessary for such essential services and activities, the Department of Homeland Security issued a Mission Need Statement in 2013, stating that the U.S. needed to triple the size of its operational fleet in order to “adequately meet mission demands in the high latitudes…” Yet, Congress cut funding for the design and fabrication of an icebreaker in the 2014 budget, and then again in its proposed 2016 budget – reductions of 73% and 81%, respectively.”

To appreciably increase its Arctic presence, the U.S. also needs to build Arctic deepwater ports, which are necessary to support search-and-rescue activities and scientific research, and to serve as an Arctic harbor of refuge. At the moment, the major port closest to Barrow, the northernmost point on the Alaskan coast, is some 1,300 miles away in the Aleutian Islands – far too far. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Alaska conducted a feasibility study for such a port in the Arctic, they concluded, “There is a need to invest further in port development for the Alaskan Arctic…” Progress remains limited, however, compared to how quickly other countries have readily developed and improved their Arctic transportation systems, as noted in a recent New York Times article,

“Russia… is building 10 new search and rescue stations, strung like a necklace of pearls at ports along half of the Arctic shoreline.”

Inadequate charting and communications systems pose additional problems for Arctic shipping. As noted in the CRS report,

“Considerable investment in navigation-related infrastructure would be required if trans-Atlantic shipping were to become a reality.”

Necessary upgrades to the infrastructure include marine surveys, ice charts, and satellite images of ice conditions.

In 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration surveyed the Bering Straits in order to update its charts, but it reported that mapping the most important areas of navigational significance in U.S. Arctic waters would take more than 25 years. Meanwhile, Russia has been attempting to chart the Arctic Ocean’s enormous Lomonosov Ridge in an effort to demonstrate that the region lies within its continental margin, a claim that, if accepted, would give Russia nearly half of the Arctic area – and the natural resources therein.

A Role for Oil and Gas

Although the U.S., as a matter of national policy, has not invested much in addressing Alaska’s infrastructure and equipment needs, individual companies have gone far in meeting those needs by bringing or building their own equipment and infrastructure to support their Arctic operations. This equipment includes much-needed icebreakers and resources for search-and-rescue operations. When heading to the Arctic for its exploration operations, Shell sent a flotilla of almost 30 ships to support its drilling activities.

As noted in a report by the National Petroleum Council (NPC), there are many opportunities for cooperation between different sectors and agencies in the Arctic. The report explains:

“There are many synergies between the types of infrastructure that would facilitate Arctic oil and gas exploration and development and the infrastructure needs of local communities, the state of Alaska, and elements of the U.S. Forces such as the Coast Guard and Navy…The Coast Guard and Navy, which play key roles in areas of safety, search and rescue, and national defense, are subject to many of the same resupply and support requirements in the Arctic as the oil and gas industry.”

Infrastructure and equipment investments that would benefit companies across a variety of sectors include upgraded airfields, ports, roads, navigational aids, satellites, radars, and communication facilities. In Barrow, Shell has already begun building the support infrastructure for its operations in the Chukchi Sea, including a helicopter hangar that has been overhauled for search-and-rescue purposes.

Given the size of the task and the scale of the necessary investments, it is likely that a combination of public and private sector investment will be needed to build out the infrastructure that the Arctic and its people badly need. Hopefully, the President’s visit to the Arctic has highlighted the pressing need for greater public investment in the region. But in the meantime, it is the private sector – the oil and gas industry in particular – that is laying the foundation for the Arctic’s economic future.