May 08, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Maloney Statements from Hearing on “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Maritime Infrastructure Vulnerabilities in an Emerging Arctic”

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 Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) during today’s hearing titled: “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Maritime Infrastructure Vulnerabilities in an Emerging Arctic.”

Chair DeFazio:

Earlier this year, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee convened two hearings to examine how Federal infrastructure policy could help mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Today, the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee tackles a topic that has for the most part escaped the notice of Congress.  And that topic is the need to look both strategically and pragmatically at maritime infrastructure needs in a rapidly evolving Arctic environment.

First off, I want to thank Chairman Maloney for devoting the subcommittee’s time and attention to this issue of growing national importance.  I also want to commend him for assembling a panel of expert witnesses that are second to none.

Whether you agree about the science of global warming or not, the plain fact is that the Arctic has emerged as a region in flux due to rising temperatures.  Decreased sea ice coverage, melting of permafrost and glaciers, and accelerated erosion of coastal areas now exposed to increased wave action – the effect of a warming climate is real, measurable, and fundamentally changing the Arctic environment.

Now, it is not only conceivable, but likely, that the Arctic Ocean will become passable, at least on a seasonal basis, for maritime commerce and resource exploration and development in the next fifteen or twenty years. 

Moreover, based upon experience which shows that the actual rate of observed physical environmental change in the Arctic commonly exceeds the rates forecast by model projections, we would be wise to assume this new future will arrive much, much sooner than anticipated.

Unfortunately, the Federal Government has been far too complacent over the past twenty years in confronting this substantial challenge through national and international policy.  Modest “whole of government” planning efforts have fallen short of addressing current infrastructure needs.

We have seen the Coast Guard’s fleet of heavy icebreakers wither away.  Furthermore, little demonstrable progress has been made in the construction of a deep water port, installation of telecommunication and navigation systems, and investment in other infrastructure necessary to support maritime transportation in this hostile and forbidding region.

Recent positive events indicate that maybe, just maybe, the Federal Government is starting to turn the corner and give the emerging Arctic the attention it is due.

I applaud the Coast Guard for releasing its 2019 Arctic Strategy and updating its policies and priorities in this region of growing geopolitical tension and challenge. 

I also was pleased to see the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy Integrated Program Office award the first contract in over 40 years to VT Halter Marine to finalize design and to construct the lead hull of what I hope will be a fleet of six new heavy icebreakers. This was very good news indeed!

Yet there is so much more that must be done.  Today, I want the witnesses to offer pragmatic, yet effective, recommendations for the types of Arctic maritime infrastructure investments the Congress should support, and a strategy and timetable for when we should commence to undertake this substantial work.

In closing, I appeal to members on both sides: we gain nothing by failing to recognize the awakening of an accessible and exploitable Arctic. The last thing we can afford to do is wait until we are forced to act; an outcome that will surely be far more costly, far more difficult, far less thoughtful, and with many more unintended consequences.

Let’s use this hearing constructively and build on what we learn today to ensure that we avoid just such a scenario.  Thank you.  

Chair Maloney:

Good afternoon, and welcome to this afternoon’s hearing on Arctic maritime infrastructure; both what is needed now, and what will be needed in the near future.

The Arctic is warming. That statement is not conjecture but a measurable and observable fact.

Melting sea ice and the opening of navigable waters make shorter voyages and substantial cost savings possible for ocean carriers sailing between major trading blocs. Today, we will explore what infrastructure is necessary to safely and reliably sustain increased levels of commercial and governmental activity in this remote and inhospitable region. 

Similarly, increased oil and gas exploration, commercial shipping, and adventure tourism in the Arctic are likely to increase the risk of maritime accidents and create new sources of pollution in what still remains a mostly unspoiled domain. Yet, at present, harbors of refuge are few and far between. Despite several surveys, no deepwater port facility has been built to support high-latitude maritime operations.

The U.S. Coast Guard is tasked with maintaining maritime safety, search and rescue, and emergency response, and law enforcement across this vast landscape, but is asked to undertake these missions with limited resources, or in the worst of circumstances like the government shutdown, without being paid.

Certainly, it was great news two weeks ago when the Coast Guard announced the award of a contract to finalize design and begin construction of the first new heavy icebreaker in over 45 years. But the reality remains that Coast Guard District 17, the District responsible for Alaska and the U.S. Arctic, has pressing air support deficiencies and substantial unmet shoreside infrastructure needs that pose considerable challenges to Coast Guard capabilities and mission readiness.

As much as the Arctic is a uniquely challenging environment, it is also uniquely vulnerable. We currently rely on international cooperative efforts for coordinated search and rescue, navigational safety, and environmental safety for oversight and response in the High North. Strong U.S. involvement in the Arctic Council and International Maritime Organization can help mitigate risks and ensure the safety of maritime operations. But at what point do we become too reliant on the shared infrastructure and capabilities offered by our Arctic neighbors?

For several years now, this subcommittee has examined the rapid emergence of the U.S. Arctic as a genuine new frontier; a frontier filled with grand promise but great peril, too. I look forward to hearing from our expert witnesses this afternoon to gather their recommendations on how best to secure our sovereign presence in the Arctic by making a strategic and sustained commitment to address our present and future maritime infrastructure needs.