Op-Ed: Time for Congress to Act on Arctic Maritime Safety

The Alaska Maritime Prevention & Response Network's Vessel Monitoring Center in Juneau

Published Sep 20, 2019 3:06 PM by Buddy Custard

The Arctic remains one of the most amazing regions of the world, with diverse wildlife, ecosystems, and weather patterns. But the Arctic Is changing: after a summer of record temperatures and record-low sea ice, many are now realizing the Arctic will continue to play a significant role in maritime transportation in the years to come. At the Alaska Maritime Prevention and Response Network, we’ve seen these evolving changes first-hand as we assist vessel owners with maintaining compliance with federal maritime regulations.

As the Arctic changes, so too must our laws and policies designed to protect important maritime environments in the region. September 26 is World Maritime Day, which we use to call attention to the importance of improving safety and maintaining environmental protection within the maritime industry.

Almost 30 years ago, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), a significant milestone in regulating oil spill prevention and response readiness in the United States. On the heels of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, OPA 90 fundamentally changed the way pollution response management is handled in the U.S., placing responsibility on vessel owners with the “polluter pays” principle, and creating prevention requirements, among other things.

While OPA 90 was a needed step forward in maritime safety, much has changed since then. The Arctic remains one of the most pristine ecosystems in the world, but it is also experiencing increasing military, maritime industry, and other commercial activity. Recent changes in climate have focused renewed attention on the Arctic region, including its potential as a marine transportation option, and the importance of environmental preservation.

The Arctic is unique; therefore, it follows that regulations protecting this region should be tailored to that uniqueness. Unfortunately, regulations resulting from OPA 90 have changed very little since 1990, and these regulations – primarily designed for the Lower 48 – fail to provide adequate standards for this last maritime frontier.

For example, OPA 90 has been interpreted by the Coast Guard to allow vessel owners to propose their own alternatives to meet key oil spill response requirements in Alaska and the Arctic. While flexibility is normally an asset for the maritime industry and the protection of the coastline of the contiguous states,  in Alaska this flexibility has only caused confusion and has resulted in unintended consequences, including a lack of consistency, clarity, and quality of oil spill prevention and response readiness. This has placed the U.S. Arctic region at increased risk of a spill or other disaster due to maritime activity.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that more vessels are traversing this region than ever before. There are approximately 10,000 large ocean-going cargo vessel transits every year that sail through the southern U.S. Arctic region following trade routes from Asia to North America. This level of activity in the Arctic is unprecedented, and was not fully considered when OPA 90 was written.

The Network is an Alaska-based non-profit organization funded by the maritime industry, and we have a history of helping vessel owners maintain compliance with federal shipping guidelines in Alaska. We are keenly aware of OPA 90’s shortfalls and the need for improvements. The Network provides not just oil spill response resources for our participants; we also invest in and consistently support efforts to pioneer innovative safety measures designed to prevent maritime incidents from happening in the first place. Our perspective is that reducing risk and improving response capacity go hand-in-hand.

It’s time for Congress to amend OPA 90 to reflect the new realities of an evolving Arctic Region, and ensure its pristine environment is protected for generations to come. Oil spill prevention and response standards need to be specifically developed for this nationally-important and ecologically-sensitive area, and stakeholders’ interests should be incorporated into planning and decision-making to advance oil spill preparedness. We must replace the current system of subjective and discretionary oil spill response alternatives with clear requirements and principles that incentivize incident prevention and swift response.

The size of the Arctic is daunting and the lack of infrastructure is challenging. As this final frontier of shipping opens up to the world, it is critical that we have guidelines in place to ensure its protection. Thirty years ago, in the wake of disaster, Congress acted swiftly, fundamentally shifting and improving maritime disaster policy. The time has come to revisit OPA 90 so it reflects the unique challenges of the U.S. Arctic region. Congress must take a proactive approach – we cannot wait for a major oil spill disaster to be the mechanism forcing change. There is simply too much at stake. The time to act is now.

Buddy Custard is the President and CEO of the Alaska Maritime Prevention & Response Network, a non-profit regulatory compliance organization in Alaska. Visit alaskaseas.org to learn more.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.