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 However, agency officials and stakeholders noted the strategy is now outdated due to changing conditions in the Arctic.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)
Open
As of June 2021, CMTS reported that it intended to complete an inventory of all existing risk assessments conducted by federal agencies that are related to Arctic maritime infrastructure by the end of fiscal year 2021. CMTS officials stated that they will collect completed assessments from the more than 25 federal agencies that are members of the Committee, and analyze that information to identify what is known about the specific risks related to gaps in Arctic maritime infrastructure. In addition, the CMTS officials also stated that they have updated information in its website describing the status of maritime infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic, including places of refuge for U.S. ships and the extent of hydrographic mapping in the region. The CMTS officials said that this information will provide a baseline to stakeholders on the extent of infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic that federal agencies and others can use in assessing risks based on documented gaps in infrastructure. Given its previous work in the U.S. Arctic and its coordinating role with its member agencies, we continue to believe that CMTS is well suited to coordinate a government-wide assessment of the risks posed by gaps in maritime infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic. We will continue to monitor CMTS's efforts to address this 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 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
In its April 2020 response to our report, OSTP neither agreed nor disagreed with the report's recommendations. OSTP acknowledged the Arctic is of critical national importance and noted interagency coordination can be implemented through the entities of the National Science and Technology Council, which is located within OSTP. As of June 2020, OSTP has not provided additional information on any actions taken in response to our recommendation. As we note in our report, without 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, agencies lack assurance that their actions are effectively targeting priority areas and decision makers cannot gauge the extent of progress in addressing maritime infrastructure gaps. As such, we stand by our recommendation and will continue to evaluate OSTP's efforts to fully address it.
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)
Open
In its April 2020 response to our report, OSTP neither agreed nor disagreed with the report's recommendations. OSTP acknowledged the Arctic is of critical national importance and noted interagency coordination can be implemented through the entities of the National Science and Technology Council, which is located within OSTP. OSTP noted the need for, and role of additional federal coordination, such as the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, is under consideration by OSTP. As of June 2020, OSTP has not provided additional information on any actions taken in response to our recommendation. We continue to believe 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 we note in our report, without an interagency collaboration mechanism designated to lead these efforts, it is unclear who has responsibility for whole-of-government efforts to address U.S. Arctic maritime infrastructure. We will continue to monitor OSTP's efforts to fully address our recommendation.

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