The United States’ Arctic infrastructure is severely lacking – as is meaningful policy discussion concerning its development.  Amid steadily growing opportunities, activity, and vessel traffic in the region, this situation is becoming increasingly untenable.  Current Arctic capabilities are unable to accommodate domestic pursuits, ensure their safety and security, protect the environment, or uphold international responsibilities. 

Growing activity in Arctic waters is being spurred by the forces of climate change, which are exposing the region’s considerable resources.  These include: massive energy reserves, fisheries, and sea-lanes that offer significantly reduced shipping distances and costs.  Such opportunities are enticing Arctic ventures and vessel traffic, and more ships and cargo translate into a greater need for infrastructure and higher risk of accidents.  Unfortunately, however, the Coast Guard reports that “there is very limited infrastructure” in the American Arctic. 

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Government action to remedy this deficiency has thus far failed to materialize.  President Obama’s recent actions seek to enhance the coordination of U.S. Arctic activities and protect the environment, but present no concrete plans for improving the country’s physical presence or competences in the region. 

Pundits have similarly failed to adequately address the situation and focus almost exclusively on the broad debate over Arctic extraction versus conservation.  Certainly, this is an important discussion, but the region will ultimately experience a mixture of these approaches.  Portions will be open to industry while others are protected.  Regardless, any Arctic policy is only as good as the resources and capabilities backing it.  No course is viable without significant upgrades in infrastructure.

An important positive step in this regard is the construction of an Arctic deep-water port.  This facility will bolster national capacity by providing safe harbor for larger vessels, handling greater scale maintenance and resupplying, and serving as a command and coordination hub for all activities and actors.  The most promising project working towards this goal is the three-year Alaska Deep-Draft Arctic Port System Study (Port Study), a joint state-federal project with Alaska that commenced in 2012.  Its purpose is to assess possible deep-water port locations along the west and northern coasts of the state.

In January, the study recommended Nome, a transshipment hub just south of the Bering Strait and approximately 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle with a population of roughly 3,800 people.  As a regional center, Nome is already relatively developed and has the only port north of Dutch Harbor – approximately 730 miles south – able to handle medium-sized vessels.  But this port is overworked and unable to meet the demands of larger ships, which are forced to anchor away from the harbor.

The Port Study also presented a rough design, cost, and benefits analysis for construction.  It estimates roughly $69 million in initial net benefits and approximately $2.3 million in net annual benefits.

As the Port Study concludes later this year, its complete findings and recommendations will be turned into funding proposals for Alaska and Congress.  Passage at the state level is relatively certain given Alaska’s sustained desire for a northern deep-water port.  But approval by Washington is more complex.  Theoretically, the project should have broad appeal.  Whether legislators want to conserve or utilize the Arctic, this port is a positive.

However, two similar federal bills recently died in committee.  A 2013 act would have authorized and funded the Secretary of the Army in setting up an Arctic deep-water port.  A 2014 act would have conveyed land above Nome to the Coast Guard, Alaska, and natives to partner in the construction of such a port. 

A key impediment to passage could be cost given congressional weariness of spending in a time of relative fiscal conservatism.  The 2013 act involved only federal funding, while the 2014 act did not address financial responsibility.  The Port Study hopefully mitigates this unease.  As a joint state-federal project, its costs are shared.  This establishes precedent for future port construction expense allocation.  While Washington will likely fund the majority of any project, Alaska’s contribution will be substantial. 

Along with cost, political jockeying may also be a factor holding back port funding.  Prudent thinking can be derailed by the pervasive partisanship of Capitol Hill depending on bill sponsorship and impressions.

But the most substantial obstacle is likely indifference.  Too few legislators are meaningfully discussing Arctic investment, much less specific projects.  This may be for several reasons.  First, despite its potential, the Arctic offers minimal investment and political returns in the near term.  Substantial development is needed and areas are still largely difficult and expensive to access. 

Second, the immediate beneficiaries of investment are almost exclusively in Alaska.  While outlays will benefit the entire country in the long-term, Alaskan communities will receive almost all short-term gains.  This limits the political appeal for legislators without constituencies in “The Last Frontier.” 

To counter this, actors with significant interest in Arctic development must speak up.  This includes the oil and gas industries and environmental groups.  Though traditionally enemies, both stand to benefit from additional Arctic infrastructure, and, specifically, an Arctic deep-water port.  Industry costs and access to resources would lessen and expand, respectively, and environmental groups would gain facilities to adequately monitor and respond to environmental situations.

While a drastic national turn toward the Arctic is inappropriate, some meaningful attention is necessary.  The U.S. must prepare for when the region’s full economic potential is accessible, make access possible, and capably protect the environment as human activity increases.  An Arctic deep-water port would aid all of these endeavors.  Hopefully, when presented with the Port Study’s findings and recommendations later this year, legislators will give them keen attention and act to secure an important future contributor to America’s energy security, environmental wealth, and economic growth. 

Kuersten is a legal fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Office of General Counsel, International Section.  The views expressed in this article are solely attributable to the author and do not represent those of NOAA or the U.S. government.