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Begich focuses on Arctic issues

March 9th 3:53 am | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article   Create a Shortlink for this article

In his address to Juneau lawmakers this week, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich compared the opportunities available in the Arctic as being akin to the state's next "big bonanza," and called on Alaska to play a large role in educating America about the state's role in the new "Arctic economy."

"Today, I believe we're at the cusp of a new era of Arctic development, and poised for a renaissance in Alaska's oil and gas development," said Begich, addressing the members of the Alaska House and Senate on Monday. "Nowhere do we enjoy new opportunity more than with Alaska's Arctic resources — oil and gas, minerals, fisheries, tourism, transportation."

Begich stated that despite numerous hurtles placed in front of the exploration of oil and gas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, as well as the National Petroleum Reserve, development is finally coming to fruition.

"For the first time in a generation, I believe we'll see exploration this summer in the Arctic," he said.

Shell Alaska is poised to drill five exploratory wells this summer (see related story, this page) pending final permit approval, after its spill response plan met with federal approval in February.

Begich said though many thought that challenges to off-shore oil and gas production — including his election — were insurmountable, he chose to prove them wrong, playing what he referred to as a game of "regulatory whack-a-mole."

"Starting with the new president on down and across political boundaries in Congress, I argued that Alaskans can develop these resources responsibly — just as we have for the last 30 years," he said.

Begich said recent news that the U.S. Coast Guard would be increasing its strength in the Arctic was a long time in coming, but more effort was needed to ensure that the resources needed, including ice breakers, were brought online quickly. He said though funding was approved this year to begin the design of a sorely needed icebreaker for the Coast Guard, he was lobbying to reactivate ice breakers the Polar Star and its sister ship, the Polar Sea, which was slated to be decommissioned.

"Along with a fleet of privately owned ice-capable vessels, this will put the United States back on track in the Arctic," he said.

Still, Begich noted what others have said as well — the United States will have to work hard to keep up with the effort and energy being exerted by other Arctic nations, and some nations that don't have Arctic coastline, but have plenty of interest.

"We can't cede our ground to Russia, Canada or China," he said. "Believe me, they're not waiting. They are moving forward at an aggressive pace. These countries are investing right now — in deepwater ports, ships, resource mapping and more. China, which isn't an Arctic nation, although they might think they are an Arctic nation, is seeking participation in the Arctic Council and is building new vessels to supplement it's Ice Dragon icebreaker."

Begich commended state Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, for their work on the Northern Waters Task Force.

Begich called for more resources and effort be devoted to the development of an Arctic deepwater port, marine navigational aids, and a communication backbone to support the increased activity. He noted that today's kindergarten students needed to be poised to take advantage of the employment opportunities that will be made available by this development, and that a priority must be placed on training those students for the jobs of the future, which he said are estimated to top some 50,000 positions just from Arctic offshore oil and gas development.

"We can best seize these opportunities by working together to invest in our facilities, in education and in our workforce," he said.

The conversation about Alaska's role in the Arctic will get another boost today as delegates participate in a roundtable discussion on Arctic issues in Washington, DC.

The Pacific Northwest Economic Region's Arctic Caucus will hold the discussion in an effort to provide an opportunity for regional stakeholders to highlight the collaborative efforts underway between Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Begich, as well as U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and numerous Alaska lawmakers, will participate in the conference.

Carey Restino can be reached at crestino@reportalaska.com.

 

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