by Michael Conathan
The Weather Channel’s reality series “Coast Guard Alaska” gives viewers an exhilarating taste of what life is like for coasties stationed in the distant reaches of our 49th state, conducting search-and-rescue and fishery enforcement missions in some of the harshest weather conditions known to man.
But starting this summer, the U.S. Coast Guard will have a new purpose in Alaska: babysitting. And you and I will be paying for it.
At a time when budget restrictions have forced belt-tightening across the Coast Guard’s suite of missions, it is making a major commitment of taxpayer dollars and limited assets to monitor Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic Ocean oil and gas drilling.
The Coast Guard is already stretching is dollars to try to overhaul its fleet of cutters — most of which were built in the 1960s — while continuing to keep our waterways and mariners safe. Under the proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, it already faces funding cuts that even budget hawk Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL) called “challenging for us to accept” because they “bluntly [gut] operational capabilities.”
Yet the Coast Guard plans to deploy key resources to the Arctic this summer exclusively for Shell’s plans to begin exploratory oil drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas — activities the insurance giant Lloyd’s of London called out for posing a “unique and hard-to-manage risk.”
The Coast Guard will send up one of the service’s three new National Security Cutters, a sea-going buoy tender, and two helicopters from the closest Coast Guard station in Kodiak, AK — over 1,000 miles away.
Taxpayers won’t just be paying the financial price. Because the service has a finite number of ships, aircraft, and personnel, we will also sacrifice part of the Coast Guard’s ability to carry out other missions, including homeland security, migrant and narcotics interdiction, fisheries enforcement, and search-and-rescue operations.
At a July 2011 Senate hearing on Arctic drilling, Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp seemed to question his service’s capacity to respond to a potential spill in the Arctic, saying “if [a spill] were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we’d have nothing. We’re starting from ground zero today.” He elaborated on those comments at a December hearing, saying his “most immediate operational need is infrastructure.”
On April 16, Papp confirmed that the Arctic deployment, “will come at the expense” of other missions:
Most likely we’ll draw down drug interdiction missions to send a national security cutter up there. Or more fisheries are left unprotected, or something else out there…. Right now we’re keeping a pretty good balance [of missions], but it’s going to be a challenge going forward. We’ve got certain things we’re just not going to be able to do.
One can’t help but wonder how that will play out when a fishing boat runs into trouble a hundred miles off the Aleutian Islands this summer and the helicopter needed to rescue those fishermen is a thousand miles away.
Or when another semi-submersible loaded with cocaine slips through an increasingly perforated dragnet in the southern Pacific that could have been tightened by the presence of a state-of-the-art National Security Cutter.
Certainly, the Coast Guard must have a presence in the Arctic while Shell’s drilling operations are moving ahead. Given the lack of infrastructure detailed in the Center for American Progress report, Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling: America’s Inability to Respond to an Oil Spill in the Arctic, it’s clear that greater investment must be made in developing the capacity to handle a potential worst-case scenario before drilling commences.
But this year, the sole purpose of Coast Guard operations in the region is to monitor Shell’s activity, thus taking away from other important activities. While Adm. Papp speaks to the need for his service to grow its Arctic capabilities, the inherently multi-mission Coast Guard will have a single mission to undertake in the Arctic: babysitting Shell.
Asking American citizens to sacrifice their tax dollars and compromise vital Coast Guard operations in service to Shell’s unacceptably risky Arctic drilling amounts to nothing more than just another Big Oil subsidy.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.