December 07, 2022

Chairs DeFazio, Carbajal Statements from Hearing on U.S. Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategy

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Salud Carbajal (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled, “U.S. Coast Guard’s Leadership on Arctic Safety, Security, and Environmental Responsibility.”  

Video of DeFazio and Carbajal’s opening statements can be found here and here

More information on the hearing can be found here. 

Chair DeFazio:

Mr. Chairman, thank you for scheduling this morning’s hearing to highlight the important role the Coast Guard serves in the Arctic. Of its many mission sets and various responsibilities, no role is more rapidly evolving than the Coast Guard’s mission in the Arctic.  

The Coast Guard does not have the privilege of ignoring the significant and consequential impacts that climate change is having on our environment. Its servicemembers operate in the harsh terrain of the Arctic and bear witness to the full effects of a warming planet in that region. The fact is we all see it and we all experience it; from extreme weather events to coastal erosion, climate change is not something we can continue to ignore. We have to provide resources to the Coast Guard so they can mitigate the effects of climate change in their operational planning.

As polar ice steadily decreases, new trade routes will emerge, linking Asia, North America, and Europe. The retreat of sea ice and the opening of navigable sea routes will only serve to accelerate the demands placed on this once inaccessible and remote region. This, inherently, will drive increased demand for Coast Guard services in the Arctic. That translates to more search and rescue response, more regulation of commercial fishing activity, more pollution response, more scientific data collection, and more icebreaking to facilitate commercial ships traversing Arctic waters. Indeed, the Coast Guard will need to augment its presence in this region if we, as a nation, are serious about protecting U.S. life and sovereignty in the Arctic.  

The Coast Guard operates the nation’s only heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star. In years prior, Congress rightly recognized the need to expand Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic and authorized $1.8 billion toward that effort. With two Polar Security Cutters fully funded and a third authorized in the Don Young Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022, we have a modest start. 

The Coast Guard is the nation’s most prominent Arctic presence, but I fear we risk losing our dominance as an Arctic state if we don’t take more aggressive action. If the construction timeline for the Polar Sentinel—the first of three new Polar Security Cutters to be built—holds, we’ll have a grand total of three polar icebreakers by the end of 2025. By comparison, Russia has 40 active icebreakers in the Arctic alone. China, which is not even a polar nation, currently operates two icebreakers, with plans to build more. Clearly, we have some catching up to do.

I look forward to Congress passing the Don Young Coast Guard Authorization Act, which includes an authorization of $150 million to acquire a commercial icebreaker to fill the gap until the arrival of Polar Sentinel. 

I’ll note, however, that recapitalizing our icebreaker fleet is just one of many steps needed to fill the capability gap in the Arctic. We also need to address the communications gap experienced in this frontier. Communications are key to any mission, but in the Arctic communications are especially strained and data transmission is very limited. Further, every Coast Guard mission starts on land. While the Coast Guard has a presence in Alaska, Congress needs to ensure that the personnel stationed in remote locations are fully supported with robust housing, childcare, and medical facilities. Coast Guard cutters and aircraft do not operate themselves so we must do better to improve the lives of Coast Guard Servicemembers. 

Finally, we cannot ignore the ongoing war in Ukraine and the impact it has had on diplomacy in the Arctic. The pause of the U.S. involvement in the Arctic Council and the associated loss of international cooperation in the Arctic is troubling, and the long-term consequences of such are unknown. The U.S. does not yet have a clear path forward in this new, non-cooperative geopolitical arena. We need to bolster our Arctic capabilities so we are prepared for any scenario, threat, or hazard that may emerge. 

Today’s hearing is timely, and the array of witnesses before us boast impressive resumes and expertise in the Arctic domain. I look forward to their testimony. 

I’d also like to mention that today will be the last hearing of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for the year, and my last hearing before I retire at the end of the 117th Congress. Being Chair of the Committee over the past four years has been the highlight of my 36-year career. I wish Sam Graves the best as he prepares to take over the gavel at the beginning of the 118th Congress. I hope and expect he will continue the bipartisanship and productivity that this committee is known for. Thank you.

Chair Carbajal:

Good morning, and welcome to today’s hearing on “Coast Guard’s leadership on Arctic safety, security, and environmental responsibility.” 

Before we start, I’d like to acknowledge that today’s hearing will be Chairman DeFazio’s last as a Member of Congress. For 36 years, the House of Representatives has been a better place because of his leadership and insight. This institution will miss him and I will miss his friendship. Mr. DeFazio, thank you for your leadership and service to our country. 

Today also marks 81 years since the Attack on Pearl Harbor that led our Nation to declare war within a day. To all of our veterans and active military families, thank you for your sacrifice and service.

Global peace is always tenuous. Today, we will hear testimony from five witnesses who are experts on the Arctic, a region where security and geopolitics are both at play. Today, we have experts before us to focus on the national security issues that are on the top of our minds, while others will enlighten us on the Coast Guard’s leadership on maritime safety and environmental stewardship.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Coast Guard published its first Strategic Plan for the Arctic region. The Service updated this plan in 2019 to reflect its coordination with the White House, Department of Defense, and the Department of State, which showed a new level of interest in the status of the United States as an Arctic nation.

With Russia’s recent aggression toward Ukraine, the geopolitical significance of the Arctic is even more pronounced. Although the Coast Guard’s security missions are critical, the service continuously executes numerous other critical missions.

The Coast Guard is responsible for maritime safety—that is, Search & Rescue, and aiding mariners in safe navigation by breaking ice, marking channels, and communicating real-time weather hazards.

The Coast Guard must also enforce environmental laws in the Arctic. This will become more and more important as melting sea ice means more shipping traffic, more oil pollution, and migrating commercial fish stocks. 

Coast Guard partnerships with Alaskans and indigenous peoples, with private corporations, the State of Alaska, other federal agencies, and other countries have met a gold standard in the last 10 years. Coordination and cooperation are not optional at the North Pole.  

To help us appreciate the importance of all of the Coast Guard’s Arctic missions, Admiral Gautier will be joined on a panel by the Honorable Michael Sfraga, the presidentially appointed Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and Mr. Andrew Von Ah, Director of the Physical Infrastructure Team at the Government Accountability Office.

The USARC is working hard to draw attention to the critical gap between the collection of data in the Arctic—weather, sea state, coastal mapping—and the Coast Guard’s ability to use this information in its everyday operations.

Similarly, the GAO has completed a number of studies in recent years that measure the success of, and gaps in, the Coast Guard’s Arctic operations.           

Today’s second panel will feature an Arctic strategic defense expert, Dr. Rebecca Pincus, Director of the Polar Institute, and Dr. Martha Grabowski, a professor at Le Moyne College and a Past Chair of the Marine Board in the National Academies of Sciences.

The Coast Guard has proven to be a nimble and resourceful leader for the U.S. in the Arctic. It can only fully implement its Strategic Plan if we fully grasp the form and severity of the challenges Coasties face operating in such a harsh, remote part of the world.

The Coast Guard plays a multi-dimensional leadership role in the Arctic. Fortunately, we have five witnesses before us with multi-dimensional expertise. Let’s begin.