Maritime Infrastructure: A Strategic Approach and Interagency Leadership Could Improve Federal Efforts in the U.S. Arctic

GAO-20-460 Published: Apr 29, 2020. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Climate change has led to record low levels of ice in the U.S. Arctic—prolonging the shipping season and opening up shipping routes. This may expand economic opportunities, but harsh weather and ice conditions—plus the lack of maritime infrastructure—pose safety risks. For example, not having a designated harbor of refuge means ships don’t have a place to moor in an emergency.

Agencies have taken steps to address infrastructure gaps, but federal efforts lack consistent leadership and a current strategy. We recommended designating an interagency group and developing a strategy to lead efforts in addressing the region’s maritime infrastructure.

Commercial ship navigating Arctic waters

A ship in icy ocean water

A ship in icy ocean water

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Maritime shipping activity, as indicated by the number of vessels in the U.S. Arctic, generally increased from 2009 through 2019. Domestic maritime activity declined after the discontinuation of offshore oil and gas exploration activities in Alaska's Chukchi Sea in 2015. However, since 2015, international activities related to natural gas development, particularly in the Russian Arctic, have increased, according to stakeholders. Factors affecting decisions of ship operators about whether to operate in the U.S. Arctic include increased operating costs of Arctic-capable ships, environmental changes that have caused more volatile weather and ice conditions, and concerns over environmental impacts.

Number of Vessels in the U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Area of Interest, 2009-2019

Fig HL-5 v06_103328

Agencies have taken some steps to address Arctic maritime infrastructure gaps identified by federal agencies, such as a lack of nautical charting, but federal efforts lack a current strategy and interagency leadership. Examples of agency actions include the U.S. Coast Guard developing recommended shipping routes and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continuing to chart Arctic waters. To guide federal efforts, the White House developed a National Strategy for the Arctic Region in 2013 and established an interagency Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) in 2015. However, agency officials and stakeholders noted the strategy is now outdated due to changing conditions in the Arctic. As a result, federal efforts lack a current government-wide strategy that aligns with key management practices such as identifying goals, objectives, and establishing performance measures. Moreover, U.S. Arctic interagency groups do not reflect leading collaboration practices, such as sustained leadership and inclusion of all relevant stakeholders, and the White House has not designated which entity is to lead U.S. Arctic maritime infrastructure efforts. For example, the AESC is now dormant according to agency officials and staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which chairs the AESC. Without a current strategy and a designated interagency entity with these collaboration practices in place, agencies may miss opportunities to leverage resources and target infrastructure improvements in areas that would best mitigate risks.

Why GAO Did This Study

Arctic sea ice has diminished, lengthening the navigation season and increasing opportunities for maritime shipping. However, the U.S. Arctic lacks maritime infrastructure—such as a deep-draft port and comprehensive nautical charting—to support increased traffic. The lack of infrastructure exacerbates risks inherent to shipping in the Arctic such as vast distances and dangerous weather.

This report examines (1) how U.S. Arctic shipping trends have changed since 2009 and factors that have shaped shipping in the region, and (2) the extent to which U.S. agencies' efforts to address Arctic maritime infrastructure gaps have aligned with leading management practices. GAO collected U.S. Coast Guard traffic data from 2009 through 2019 and interviewed 20 stakeholders selected to represent a range of views. GAO also analyzed Arctic strategies, interviewed selected agencies involved with maritime infrastructure, and compared efforts to leading management practices.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, including that OSTP and other appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President: develop and publish a strategy to address gaps and designate the interagency mechanism responsible for leading federal efforts. OSTP neither agreed nor disagreed but noted it is considering the need for and role of additional federal coordination. GAO stands by its recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Committee on the Marine Transportation System The U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System should complete a government-wide assessment of the economic, environmental, and safety risks posed by gaps in maritime infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic to inform investment priorities and decisions. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
Climate change has led to a significant decline in sea ice cover in the Arctic region over the last four decades, increasing opportunities for shipping. The U.S. Arctic does not have the typical elements of a maritime transportation system such as a deep-draft port, comprehensive waterways charting, and robust communications infrastructure, according to the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS). CMTS is a federal interagency coordinating committee focused on the maritime transportation system that is chaired by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. In 2020 GAO found that although federal agencies have taken some steps to address gaps in U.S. Arctic infrastructure, those efforts are not based on a government-wide assessment of the economic, environmental, and safety risks to inform investment decisions. Leading management practices GAO reviewed note the importance of assessing risks to select and prioritize countermeasures to prevent or mitigate risks. In addition, CMTS has noted the importance of conducting a risk assessment to inform Arctic decision-making and, in a 2013 report, proposed a model for determining risk that considered the likelihood of adverse events occurring, vulnerability to damage, and potential consequences. However, CMTS officials told us that they have not systematically assessed risks posed by maritime infrastructure gaps in the U.S. Arctic because CMTS's priorities are established by its member agencies, and that CMTS has not been directed to conduct such an assessment by its members. Nevertheless, CMTS is required by statute to, among other things, coordinate the establishment of domestic transportation policies in the Arctic to ensure safe and secure maritime shipping and make recommendations with regard to federal policies that impact the marine transportation system. GAO concluded that CMTS is well suited to conduct a government-wide assessment of the risks posed by gaps in maritime infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic, and reported that by conducting an assessment, agencies would have better information on which to base decisions for agency expenditures and prioritize appropriate actions in response to risks in the U.S. Arctic. As such, GAO recommended that CMTS complete a government-wide assessment of the economic, environmental, and safety risks posed by gaps in maritime infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic to inform investment priorities and decisions. In 2022, GAO confirmed that CMTS had taken several actions which, taken together, address the intent of this recommendation. First, CMTS gathered information on the current state of infrastructure that supports the MTS in the U.S. Arctic, and publicly reported this information in CMTS's April 2021, "U.S. Arctic Maritime Transportation System Infrastructure Table: 2021 Update." The table describes actions taken by federal agencies to address infrastructure gaps, including steps taken by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard to award a contract to construct a new heavy polar icebreaker. Second, drawing upon its Arctic Marine Transportation Integrated Action Team, which includes representatives from 18 federal agencies, CMTS collected and reviewed a range of risk assessments and other documents related to the identification and mitigation of risks derived from Arctic infrastructure gaps. In March 2022, CMTS published its "U.S. Arctic Marine Transportation System Infrastructure Risk Resource Compendium," which addresses a range of risks, including the economic, environmental, and safety issues affected by Arctic infrastructure gaps. While this compendium does not represent a government-wide assessment of all risks posed by the infrastructure gaps, it provides useful information to federal agencies responsible for addressing gaps in U.S. Arctic maritime infrastructure to better inform their investment decisions.
Office of Science and Technology Policy The appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy should develop and publish a strategy for addressing U.S. Arctic maritime infrastructure that identifies goals and objectives, performance measures to monitor agencies' progress over time, and the appropriate responses to address risks. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
In its response to GAO's April 2020 report, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO's recommendation, but it has since taken initial steps toward addressing it. Specifically, in October 2022, the White House issued a National Strategy for the Arctic Region (National Strategy), which updated the predecessor strategy that was issued in 2013. OSTP officials told GAO that they participated in the effort to develop the updated strategy, which was led by the National Security Council. The National Strategy covers the 10-year period from 2022 to 2032, and establishes four pillars to address both domestic and international issues in the U.S. Arctic. Those pillars are (1) security; (2) climate change and environmental protection: (3) sustainable economic development; and (4) international cooperation and governance. The plan identifies the need to improve maritime capabilities in the U.S. Arctic, including the need for enhanced communications, mapping, charting, and navigational capabilities, as well as the need for a deep draft harbor in Nome, Alaska and smaller ports and other infrastructure to enable commerce and maritime safety. However, the National Strategy does not include specific performance measures to monitor federal agencies' progress in implementing the strategic goals and objectives and respond to Arctic risks, as GAO recommended. Staff for the White House's Arctic Executive Steering Committee told GAO that they are in the process of developing an implementation plan for the National Strategy. By establishing performance measures within this implementation plan that align with the pillars and principles of the National Strategy, the federal government would have a tool to monitor the federal agencies' progress in addressing U.S. Arctic maritime infrastructure. GAO will continue to monitor OSTP's efforts to address our recommendation.
Office of Science and Technology Policy The appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy should designate the interagency group responsible for leading and coordinating federal efforts to address maritime infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic that includes all relevant stakeholders. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
Climate change has led to a significant decline in sea ice cover in the Arctic region over the last four decades, making Arctic waters navigable for longer periods of time and increasing opportunities for shipping. However, the lack of maritime infrastructure in the region presents safety and environmental risks. Many federal agencies have a role in Arctic maritime shipping and infrastructure, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2020, GAO reported that although there are many efforts to coordinate agency actions in the U.S. Arctic, the Executive Office of the President had not designated an interagency group responsible for developing or executing a strategy for maritime infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic. In addition, the existing efforts to coordinate federal actions lacked consistent interagency leadership and inclusion of relevant stakeholders to guide agencies' actions. Specifically, interagency activity in the U.S. Arctic historically had been coordinated through the National Security Council (NSC). To enhance coordination, a January 2015, Executive Order established the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) to shape national priorities and set strategic direction in the Arctic. The AESC included NSC as a member along with over 20 federal departments and entities and was chaired by the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which leads interagency science and technology policy coordination efforts within the White House. However, according to agency officials interviewed by GAO, the AESC was dormant and had not met in 2 years, and OSTP staff told GAO that they are not aware of any current AESC activities. Moreover, although the NSC was leading an Arctic policy coordinating committee, GAO was unable to verify the participants in this forum so it was unclear whether relevant stakeholders were involved. GAO has previously reported that interagency efforts can benefit from the leadership of a single entity to provide assurance that federal programs are well coordinated. Without an interagency mechanism with sustained leadership and inclusion of relevant stakeholders, agencies may miss opportunities to leverage resources toward achieving a broader outcome in the U.S. Arctic. As result, GAO recommended that the appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, including OSTP, should designate the interagency group responsible for leading and coordinating federal efforts to address maritime infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic that includes all relevant stakeholders. As of January 2022, OSTP has taken sufficient action to implement this recommendation. First, in September 2021, the White House announced that it was reactivating the AESC as a mechanism to advance U.S. interests and coordinate federal actions in the Arctic, including maritime infrastructure. In doing so, it appointed an Executive Director and convened its first meeting in December 2021. The White House's announcement emphasized the inclusion of relevant stakeholders in AESC activities, such as by reinforcing collaborative partnerships with Alaskan Native communities in the region. Second, OSTP officials reported that in response to GAO's recommendation it included a proposal in the U.S. Arctic Research Plan 2022-2026 to form an interagency team to collaborate on research to monitor and develop land-based and maritime infrastructure that would amplify federal investment in the Arctic and prevent duplication of effort. Finally, OSTP and the Office of Management and Budget agreed to work with federal agencies to review large-scale infrastructure needs in the U.S. Arctic, including maritime infrastructure, to recommend priorities for federal spending. As a result of these actions, OSTP has an interagency leadership and coordination effort in place to address maritime infrastructure and achieve government-wide priorities in the complex and changing U.S. Arctic.

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