Begich introduces package of Arctic bills

Senator calls for research plan in 'maiden' speech

Posted: Tuesday, August 04, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Alaska Sen. Mark Begich used his "maiden" speech Monday to call for addressing changes in the Arctic brought on by global warming.

The freshman senator announced the introduction of seven bills aimed at preparing for Arctic development in changing conditions.

"We need to invest in basic science to better understand Arctic oceanography, meteorology, biology of its fish and marine mammals, as well as natural resources and oil and gas potential," Begich said. "We need a coordinated research plan. It should start with baseline observations and include better science supporting Arctic-specific oil spill prevention and response."

Begich took office in January. From the Senate's earliest days, according to the body's Web site, new members have observed a ritual of remaining silent during floor debate for a time that has ranged from several months to several years. Some believed that by waiting a respectful amount of time before giving their "maiden" speech, their more senior colleagues would respect them for their humility.

Begich outlined how warming has affected his state's wildlife and coastal communities and noted a University of Alaska study that estimates climate change will increase the cost of maintaining or replacing public infrastructure by $6 billion. Begich called for a coordinated Arctic research plan that will guide policy decisions.

Begich called for an increase in Arctic infrastructure, including new icebreakers and U.S. Coast Guard facilities on Alaska's northern coast, and federal research to make possible oil spill recovery in Arctic waters.

Another bill would extend to Alaska the same share of federal offshore petroleum revenue enjoyed by residents of Gulf of Mexico states, and direct a portion to residents of the North Slope.

He called for addressing health problems of Arctic people, who experience higher rates of alcohol abuse, diabetes, high blood pressure and death from injury and suicide than the general population.

Another bill would create an Arctic Adaptation Fund to address land lost or damaged, including erosion of coastal villages formerly protected by ocean ice, or damage from melting permafrost.

Begich also called for Senate ratification of two treaties would improve the nation's ability to address Arctic climate change.

Ratifying the Convention on the Law of the Sea, he said, would give the United States a seat at the table in settling long-standing disputes over national rights to offshore waters and resources.

He said the Senate also should ratify the Treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants, adopted in 2001. PCBs, DDT, dioxin and fire retardants are carried by wind and sea currents to the Arctic, trapped in ice and stored in fatty tissues of fish and marine mammals, he said.

Officials from two environmental organizations praised Begich for pushing research in a national discussion managing Arctic resources.

"He recognizes that change is rapidly coming to the Arctic, that a lot more science is needed to inform decisions," said Christopher Krenz of Oceana.

Marilyn Heiman of Pew Environment Group said many people are talking about where to drill for petroleum but there also must be discussion of critical habitat.

"There are lawsuits filed all the time on the Arctic Ocean," she said. "Doing it the responsible way is probably the way it's going to be more effective."

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