On Wednesday, the independent and nonpartisan organization, Resources for the Future (RFF), held a seminar in Washington D.C. focusing on the underlying issues of current and future shipping operations in the Arctic. Four speakers joined moderator and RFF Senior Fellow Alan Krupnick in a discussion that revolved around marine wildlife, receding ice sheets, and the need for additional infrastructure that could support an anticipated rise in transarctic shipping.
The most active participant in the discussion, sponsored by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, was Lawson Bringham, a distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Professor Bringham confronted what he called a misconception in the national media and Washington D.C. political scene that increased shipping is incentivized by retreating ice sheets. The Professor argued that at best, Arctic shipping routes would be seasonal in nature, open for a couple months, thereby limiting the motivation for companies to create and utilize transarctic routes. Instead, the professor claimed that increases in Arctic shipping would be motivated by demand for Arctic resources such as oil and gas, fresh water, and fish.
Also joining the seminar was Denise Michels, the mayor of Nome, Alaska, an isolated Alaskan community only accessible by plane or barge. Ms. Michels presented the native perspective to the future of Arctic shipping and transportation, arguing that increased marine infrastructure would be imperative in order to deal with increased traffic in the region, a viewpoint that was shared by all the panelists. Of top priority in this regard are advancements in Arctic marine traffic systems, environmental response capacities, and hydrographic data according to Professor Bringham.
Another assessment that was shared amongst Professor Bringham and Ms. Michels was the role that private industry has played in the development of existing and future Arctic marine infrastructure. Professor Bringham pointed to the impressive “armada” of ships and crew that Shell Oil Company had funded to begin and maintain exploratory drilling operations in the region that were abandoned in late September. The Professor emphasized that Arctic oil exploration was by no means over, particularly in the Russian Arctic. The Nome mayor, on the other hand, wondered aloud as to who would fill the important role that private companies like Shell would have played in the development of vital Arctic infrastructures citing the Federal Government as a potential source due to matters of national security.
RFF’s discussion on the present and future opportunities and challenges of Arctic shipping presented little disagreement, but rather a general consensus that marine transport is likely to increase in the future, and investments in infrastructure need to be made quickly and efficiently in order to accommodate this rise in Arctic traffic in a safe and productive manner.
Also joining the panel were Captain Scott Smith, Chief at the Office of Navigation Systems with the U.S. Coast Guard and Jeremy Goldbogen, Assistant Professor of biology at Stanford University