Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp speaks Aug. 12 at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard in Anchorage, Alaska. (Dan Joling / The Associated Press)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The commandant of the Coast Guard said Friday the nation must decide what level of pollution cleanup response capability the agency should have along the Arctic coast as an oil company prepares to begin drilling there.
As of now, the agency is operating at a disadvantage, Adm. Robert Papp said.
"You never know the full spectrum of things that can go wrong," Papp said. "And if the Coast Guard has no resources, we have no backup, we have no way to execute a plan. So we've got to have some infrastructure up there."
Papp spoke in Anchorage to a group that would welcome additional agency assets in the state that has more coastline than the rest of the nation combined. The forum was a U.S. Senate subcommittee hosted by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, chairman of the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
Begich said the Coast Guard faces a host of challenges.
"With an aging fleet of cutters and aircraft, the service is in the middle of a major and expensive recapitalization effort," he said.
While Congress is looking to make major spending cuts, Begich said, the Coast Guard is being asked to take on new responsibilities as melting sea ice opens the Arctic to resource development, shipping and tourism.
Shell Oil has applied to drill exploratory wells next year in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's northern coast and the Chukchi Sea off its northwestern coast.
The company's spill response plans includes more than a dozen vessels accompanying the drilling ship, a second drilling ship to relieve pressure in a blowout well, and an oil spill containment system that could cap a blowout.
Federal law, however, ultimately gives the responsibility for spill cleanup to the Coast Guard, Papp said.
"Just like you would see in the Gulf of Mexico last year, while BP had a responsibility to clean up, it was the Coast Guard's responsibility to make sure it got cleaned up," he said.
The Coast Guard base nearest to the drilling sites is in Kodiak, more than 1,000 miles away.
"We have extremely limited Arctic response capabilities," Papp said. "We do not have any infrastructure on the North Slope to hangar our aircraft, moor our boats or sustain our crews. I have only one operational icebreaker."
The agency is reviewing Shell's plans and is "fairly confident and comfortable" that the company will provide the right resources.
But, "prudence dictates that we also acquire an appropriate level of Arctic pollution response capability," Papp said. "Presently, we have none."
Papp said he's looking for a national call for action in the Arctic, as there was in the 1950s when a nation concerned with Soviet bombers and missiles came up with the resources to construct the Distant Early Warning Line.
"Maybe if gas gets up to $5 or $6 a gallon, people will say, ‘Hey, there are a lot of untapped resources in the Arctic.' Maybe the nation will start thinking that way," Papp said. "But we need to be thinking about that now. We can't wait to start building infrastructure up there because drilling is starting now."
Drilling is not the only change, he said. Cruise ships and freighters have begun plying Arctic waters, and the fishing fleet may get there as fish stocks move north.