May 22 marks National Maritime Day. Congress established it in 1933 in commemoration of the steamship Savannah and her maiden voyage, which was the first transatlantic voyage ever made by a steamship. In the 203 years since the Savannah left its namesake port in Georgia for Liverpool, England, ocean technology has come a long way – and shipping has become a mainstay of the supply chain that enables cargo to arrive from all over the world. Much of this maritime activity travels along the Great Circle Route off western Alaska.
The oceans that surround Alaska are special: they are pristine; a source of food; and a place of adventure, recreation and commerce. Accidents on these waters can damage lives and communities for generations, as demonstrated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Following this disaster, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act. 1990 (OPA90) to better protect our coastal waters by requiring industry-funded response capabilities and encouraging safer shipping practices to prevent such incidents from happening again.
Since then, industry operations, technology and the environment have evolved, giving rise to shipping routes unforeseen 30 years ago in western Alaska and the American Arctic. As a result, the original intent of OPA90 is no longer well served, as it has not kept pace with these changes. Stakeholder insights and advances in maritime operations can and should be leveraged to modernize regulations, making them better suited for the 21st century and changing maritime activity off Alaska.
Fortunately, the United States House included language in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022, named after Alaskan Congressman Don Young, that updates the requirements for disaster response. discharge to meet the ever-changing challenges of our vast state and remote waters. This is an important step in the right direction. I am pleased to join Alaskans across the state in urging the U.S. Senate to update OPA90 in this proactive way for the future health of our oceans, fish stocks, and communities.
The Authorization Act brings important and necessary updates to the OPA90 by:
- create more clarity and transparency in the regulatory process,
- establishing minimum requirements for oil spill response capabilities, and
- adapt these updates to the vast remote and sparse regions of Alaska’s coastal waters.
The easiest oil spill to clean up or maritime incident to save is the one that never happens; however, the current system of OPA90 regulations has made prevention efforts more difficult over the years due to arbitrarily interpreted regulations and failure to take modern technology into account.
The solution proposed in the Authorization Act requires the development of clear, consistent, and transparent oil spill prevention and response rules for Western Alaska. These not only benefit shippers operating in Alaska, but also regulators, stakeholders and local communities. A clear set of rules will avoid confusion, reduce risk and set clear expectations for all parties involved.
Collaboration in developing these new regulations is essential, and the Authorization Act requires the engagement of various stakeholders, such as shipping and fishing interests, Alaska Native organizations, recreators and state regulators. The updated rules will reflect the values of Alaskans and the reality of the unique maritime challenges we face off our remote coasts.
This update to OPA90 also comes at a critical time. The Arctic region holds great potential. Shippers look north to cut costly global transits by traveling across the Arctic Ocean; cruise lines expand their horizons with voyages through the Northwest Passage; and nations grapple with the security and environmental challenges posed by the warming circumpolar North. Protecting and maintaining the pristine Arctic environment is a top priority in these complex and difficult discussions. The proposed OPA90 updates proactively address incident prevention and response rules that work for Alaska at a defining moment in Arctic policy deliberation.
As we reflect on the history of global shipping, we must also look to the future and set the stage for the next 50 years of Alaska’s ocean health and commerce. The late Congressman Young was instrumental in crafting the original OPA90, so it’s fitting that the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2022 is named in his honor. The legislation charts a positive future for Alaska’s marine industry and oceans – a future of cooperation, collaboration, clarity and consistency. Like Congressman Young, the legislation aims to ensure that one of our most vital resources — our oceans — continues to thrive for generations to come. It passed the House, and like other Alaskans, I hope it will be improved, passed by the Senate, and made law so that Alaska’s oceans will be protected. they really deserve.
Buddy Custard is the president and CEO of maritime safety and oil spill response organization Alaska Chadux? Network. He has extensive knowledge and expertise working in maritime operations in both the public and private sectors, including serving in the United States Coast Guard for over 30 years, reaching the rank of captain and as an executive for a oil exploration and production operating in the outer continental shelf of the US Arctic.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.