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Developing Alaska Arctic policy proves daunting

By Rhonda McBride 10:55 PM December 9, 2013

Commission has a slew of issues to tackle

ANCHORAGE – The opening of the Arctic presents both challenge and opportunity for Alaska. But for members of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, it’s like peering into a crystal ball. There is no sure way to anticipate all the consequences of rapid climate change. The only thing they know for sure is their work is key to Alaska’s future.

The commission is made up of state lawmakers, community leaders and representatives of various industries.

On Monday, they gathered in Anchorage at the Dena’ina Center to continue work on a report to be presented to the state legislature and the governor. There was also an opportunity for the public to weigh in.

Some testified the state is not ready for what’s ahead — that shrinking sea ice means more water open to shipping and potentially more spills.

“We’re woefully unprepared for any type of incident like this,” said Paul Fuhs, chairman of the board for the Marine Exchange Association.

Fuhs told the policy commission that shipping traffic is already on the upswing — and as the sea ice disappears, he expects it to increase even more.

“If we have a Russian oil tanker wrecked on St. Lawrence Island,” Fuhs said, “and we send one of the big boats from the Shell (Oil) operation, what’s the consequence of that?”

Among some of the other issues raised in public testimony: The need for a state office to coordinate Arctic policy, a lack of communications infrastructure, the need for more vocational programs to train workers for future jobs and the importance of offshore oil development.

The commission also formed to be a voice for Alaska in the development of a national Arctic strategy. Some members have complained that the federal government has not focused enough on the people who live in the Arctic.

“The missions are quite different when you look at the federal level,” said Pat Pourchot, who serves as special assistant for Alaska to the U.S. Interior Department.

Pourchot, a former state legislator, also has a seat on the policy commission. The federal focus is primarily on defense and other national initiatives, he said.  But Pourchot also believes the Alaska commission has made some inroads in getting the federal government to understand the impacts of climate change on the 50,000 Alaskans who make their home in the Arctic.

“When we had some White House representatives visiting this summer, they beamed into the commission meeting that was held in Barrow in June, and that point was made very clear,” Pourchot said.

Beyond the Beltway, there may a bigger role to play.

“There’s a lot of people around the country that don’t know enough to care,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, (D) Dillingham. “And that’s part of our charge with the policy commission in Alaska — to help raise awareness.”

Peter Garay, who is a member of the American Pilots Association, is a marine pilots representative on the commission.

“There’s equipment being staged globally over the horizon. It’s like a Tsunami coming our way,” said Garay, who believes Alaskans will begin to feel the impact of increased shipping and development as early as next summer.

Garay was aboard the Renda, the Russian tanker that made an emergency fuel delivery to Nome in 2012. He saw firsthand how the response to the crisis was largely “unscripted.”

“We have an opportunity to help direct how we might go, rather than a decade from now say, ‘How did we get here?’” Garay said. “This is the last frontier opening up.”

From new ports to oil spill response capabilities to homeland security, it’s a frontier with a long list of needs that is far from finished.

The Alaska Arctic Policy Commission meets at the Denai’ina Center in Anchorage through Tuesday.

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